Office tribalism

May 14, 2018

Tribes provide compelling places for support, validation, and direction, but tribalism cannot be allowed to thwart a firm’s success.

I chose psychology as a major in college because I thought it would help me understand the confusing world of human behavior and, to be honest, myself. What I failed to realize was that before studying the cool stuff like schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and manic depression, I first had to spend endless hours in laboratories observing rats and tachistoscopes. To alleviate the boredom of lab life, I added a major in cultural anthropology. Little did I realize its eventual relevance to decoding the modern business world.

Anthropology introduced me to the world of tribes. I studied a wide diversity of them, including the Arapesh in Samoa, the Babemba in Africa, and the street corner life of Tally’s Corner in Washington, D.C. Tribes operate as communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, and a common culture. They bind people together based on perceived common traits and a deep loyalty that can favor tribal affinity over questioning group assumptions.

Tribalism in today’s business life. Tribalism is much in the news these days, appearing in politics and business. I recently encountered it when working with a professional services firm. The firm had two offices, several practice groups, and many men and women professionals. While relations among the professionals were usually cordial, the cordiality had broken down, and business was suffering. In my interviews of affected firm members, I heard such complaints as:

  1. Why did senior leadership credit a man for winning a new client when the women actually made the pitch?
  2. Why was our office not included in business development events with clients belonging to both offices?
  3. Why did one practice group not invite another practice group to pitch a prospective client who would have been interested in both practices?

When I asked them what they thought caused these issues, virtually everyone said, “Rivalries between the two offices, men and women, and two practice groups.” In other words, tribalism.

Allying with a tribe can provide the instant emotional comfort that comes with tribal loyalty. It also avoids confronting stickier issues that do not lend themselves to tidy conclusions. Unearthing the root causes of friction can lead to awkward conversations where what is said might not be believed or appreciated.

For example, the reason a practice group leader was excluded from a pitch may be so innocuous as someone misread his calendar and thought he was out of town. Alternatively, it might be because the last time he attended a pitch, he talked too much and turned off the client.

Research on tribalism suggests that the more people know about each other, the more tribal boundaries melt. Pushing through discomfort to understand people changes perceptions and promotes connections.

Overcoming tribalism. Here are four steps toward resisting the pull of tribalism and advancing the business:

  1. Call tribalism by name. Recognize that blaming problems on group identity can miss the point. It gives the illusion of being in control of matters by labeling rather than addressing the problem. Direct your energy toward surfacing core causes, however difficult to face.
  2. Enter the discomfort zone. Find the courage to learn about others without prejudgment or bias. Ask open-ended questions. Instead of hearing what you want to hear, hear what is actually being said. A male colleague receiving credit for winning a client may not mean the firm favors men over women, but, rather, recognition for the groundwork he laid prior to the meeting.
  3. Confront conflict avoidance. People commonly pretend they have things “handled,” when in fact they want to avoid the discomfort of not knowing how the other party will react. Telling a colleague that you excluded him from a pitch due to his overbearing communication style might cause hurt feelings, but it opens the door to helping him improve.
  4. Build a code of conduct. Agree on your organization’s rules for communication, inclusion, and leveraging of its talent based on common goals that advance the business, not the tribe. Shift your focus from who gets credit to how you can work together to win over the client.

Tribes provide compelling places for support, validation, and direction. While these attributes are understandably attractive, when tribal loyalty thwarts the success of the broader organization, it behooves everyone to look beyond tribal borders.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 16 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the discomfort and excitement of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached at

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