Notice how tribes have their own membership behaviour codes? How tribal influence can cut across organizational structures? Do they work for or against you?
Tribal Influence (Audio)
Do you know what tribal influences and undercurrents exist in your company? Have you ever noticed how tribes have their own membership behavior codes and how their dynamics can cut across organizational structures? What “tribes” are you a member of? How aware are you of different “tribes” operating around you? What influences are they able to exert? What is a “tribe”?
What role could tribal influence be playing in your organization?
I have seen tribes defined as “a group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor” (Oxford English Dictionary) or a group of persons with a common occupation, interest, or habit,” or “a large family.”
What does the word “tribe” mean to you? Having grown up in Africa, I was exposed to many tribes in the classic “colonial sense”. Africa is riddled with different tribes or ethnic groups, very often in conflict. The world is full of examples where different tribes undermine the ability to form a sovereign government that tries to accommodate all of them under one rule, or break up a sovereign country into a few smaller “tribal related ones”.
But that is not what I want to discuss today. I would like to focus on the existence and influence of tribes in an organizational context.
I have just finished reading a book by management consultant Ray Immelman called “Great boss, dead boss” which was given to me by his brother Phil, who is one of my professional associates in Singapore. It was a great read in that it was written in the form of fiction novel with a wonderful plot and much suspense, while it outlined a bunch of “home truths” all of us in leadership experience all the time. If you are building or running an organization or leading a team I recommend this book.
What it highlighted for me to understand so clearly for the first time was how much subtle power tribes and tribal behavior have within organizations to undermine or influence corporate policy and outcomes. It taught me that any leader ignores tribal influences at their leadership and organizational peril.
Old school tie
I’m sure you are aware of the power and influence so often still embedded in the “old school tie” association, right? If you aren’t a “member” of that group it can be extremely difficult to “feature”, can’t it? One seems to feel unable to ever get into “the inner circle”. In the context of this blog I’m also going to call that a “tribe”.
Power bases and power struggles
In any organization there will be tension between different functions and departments from time to time (are you kidding I hear some of you say – it’s all the time). Manufacturing will always complain that Sales make promises they can’t keep, and if that doesn’t work, they blame Maintenance for breakdowns (but never let them have the plant to refurbish etc) or they grumble about QA being too tough on them. Then there are the unions that cut across all those dynamics, not to forget that common enemy: “Head Office”. A few weeks ago I wrote about Being too Defensive and that is certainly a behavioral trait that is found between departments and tribes, right?
How does this relate to “tribes”? Well, I learned that often these different departments harbor the same sort of people, often when their boss is able to recruit too many people “just like them”. They may have common engineering or education backgrounds; or perhaps common sporting or cultural allegiances etc. that can exert very powerful influences over or against “non-tribal members”.
The same or similar to the old school tie is to be found from certain alumni’s from our education. For instance, chartered accountants like to distinguish themselves from other groups and also work very hard to maintain their “aloofness” and maintaining “the awe” they might be seen under by non-financial people. They have developed their own language with which they love to use to “bamboozle” others to show their superiority.
I’ve also very strongly felt that in the IT community, having spent a large portion of my working life brokering between this “tribe” and their/our customers (or “users” as they prefer to call them) to have the IT people understand they aren’t an end in themselves but only there to meet business needs, and to try and help the business clients they are meant to serve to translate their “tech-speak”. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the same or similar can be said about most specialist functions, like Human Resources (HR), or engineers of truck drivers or the Unions …. and the list can go on forever.
We also find different sources of agendas and power, as I wrote about in Managing Agenda’s. One example of that could be between head office and a region office or subsidiaries etc. Walking with an associate over the weekend he spoke about noticing that it takes only a few weeks of being placed in head office that he (and those where he came from) noticed him having started to adopt head office’s language and also attitudes, (policies) and behaviour towards others. It really doesn’t take long before he is “painted with the same brush” as those that surround him. In order to fit in and figure out his position in “the pecking order” he needed to adapt his language and behaviour to be accepted (and thus already be treated with scepticism from those he left). He has already become part of the “head office tribe”.
In my blog Belonging I spoke about people needing to belong and to be welcome and feel part of “something bigger than themselves” also in terms of meeting their need for significance and thus giving rise to masses of different clubs and groups and associations. Each has their own “norms” and often also their own “rules” by which members are expected to behave etc
I believe that this is an important aspect of tribal behavior.
The common enemy
One of my biggest frustrations of my life in Corporate (particularly matrix) organizations was “the amount of energy we consumed on ourselves”. The politicking and the posturing and the games to outdo one another (sometimes, or dare I say often) at the overall expense of the company’s position or profits was rife. Three to four year role tenures exacerbated that in that decisions were often clearly made in the individual’s career interests rather than that of the company. I can see many of you nodding as you relate).
If we add the tribal influences we have been talking about above, how can organizations ever be successful?
I have learned that if we can identify and understand the existence of tribes in the company, we can start to recognize their WIIFM and harness that towards helping them get what they want, and so encourage them to focus more attention on us getting what we want for the organization. The biggest opportunity to drive such outcomes happens when leaders are able to harness, unite and direct that energy towards a common enemy. This was beautifully described in Ray’s aforementioned book. Apart from no longer being distracted by wasting energy on fighting each other, they chose to direct their “hate” towards their competitors while maintaining the positive aspects of the existence of their respective tribes and with incredible results for everyone.
Existence of tribes in your company
I think you get what I’m talking about, don’t you? So why don’t you have a quick think about which other form of ‘tribes” you can identify within your organization?
Internal and external tribal influence
In most of my coaching programs and in a large part of my blog content I speak about our ability to exert influence over those we lead towards our desired and planned outcomes. I speak about the “soft skills” necessary to aid such influential behavior. I speak about listening so that we recognize “how” people speak so that we can adapt our language to match and mirror theirs. Their unconscious mind notices that we are “speaking their language” thereby raising rapport to create a “warming” between us. You know that everyone is motivated by “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?), don’t you?
Why is this important? Because by looking for what “tribes” they may belong to and the WIIFM of those tribes can give us very powerful and very useful insights into areas of interest to which they will respond.
And so that brings me to those of us that lead others, be it those we have engaged within our organizations or those we are buying from or those we are selling to. Appreciating their tribal belongings and understanding tribal existence and preferences or motivations enables us to “level with them” and better appreciate “where they are coming from” which can be an important aspect of leading them to your desired or required outcomes.
So far we have been talking about managing internal dynamics of tribal existence. All these techniques and emphases can be just as well directed towards where we need to exert external influence. When we are selling (ourselves or our product or our company) taking the trouble to ascertain what tribes may exist in the company we are selling to or finding out which “tribe(s)” the person (s) we are seeking to influence might belong to, we might be able to leverage that to build stronger rapport or perhaps draw on such associations to further influence positive and supportive outcomes.
This is what I found so fascinating in Ray’s book. I learned that we put all sorts of structures, rules, policies and processes in place in order to enable “managing performance” of the individuals and that they very often fail to inspire or motivate.
I also learned that tribal association and behavior often runs in parallel to or alongside the structural organization and that they often work against each other if (and because) they don’t fulfill each other’s needs.
I learned that if we take the trouble to better recognize, understand, and appreciate some aspects of their “tribal behavior” that we can indeed go a lot further in motivating and allowing them to want to “belong” for their reasons while harnessing that towards our reasons and that in this way all of our expectations and objectives are met. Surely that beats the heck out of enforcing activities through policies and performance management?
I hope that this has raised your awareness of the power that tribal behavior can have over a company’s agenda(s) and over your agenda(s). Why not spend some time in the coming week(s) watching out for that and figuring out whether and where the existence of tribes may be creating obstacles or where you might be able to harness them to your (and their) benefits?
What if you could?