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November 21, 2008

Support the Tribe

I’m on a train to DC, thinking about human beings as tribal creatures. There’s a group of young men and women just in front of me.  They’re all clearly colleagues; their conversation is peppered with in-jokes, and their interactions are relaxed and fluid.  They’re part of a tribe, and it’s obvious they feel respected and comfortable in that tribe.

It often occurs to me how little attention many businesses pay to the fact that most of us have a strong preference to be part of a group in which we feel comfortable, and react badly when that group is disturbed or broken.  Business leaders often deal with their employees as though they are cogs in a machine: entirely separate and interchangeable.  If you take one cog out of a machine and put in another, the machine won’t be affected as long as the new cog is the same size and shape as the old one.


But people in an organization are neither entirely separate nor easily interchangeable.  An organization is a tribe, or series of interconnected tribes, and a tribe is a system.  The members of that system are interdependent.  It's necessary, in an organization, to remove and add people, but if you do it cog-fashion, it will impact the whole system in ways both invisible (confusion, fear, hesitation, sadness, disorientation, anger) and visible (less creativity, fewer reasonable risks taken, lowered productivity, increased turnover, subtle and overt sabotage).

If top executives conceived of their organizations as tribes – living systems of influence and support – and approached their employees with the care such a conception implies, change would be much less traumatic.  The strengths of tribe – mutual support, trust, ease of communication, sharing of knowledge, individual investment in the group’s success – could carry the enterprise through necessary transformations largely intact. 

It's an important time to recognize this.


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Great post Erika. It's amazing how disconnected some CEO's and other top executives can be from their employees!

Hi Jason -

Yes, I agree. It's as though they somehow magically forget what they felt like when they were employees!

(btw, I tried to go to your website, and got a server error message.)


So true. Let's get tribal! You might enjoy Seth Godin's new book TRIBES. (Haven't read it yet, but it looks good.)

Keep up the good work (and play). Mitch


Thank you, my dear -

I'll get it on my Kindle!


I'm convinced that the best models for the organizations of the future will be drawn from anthropology and biology instead of from engineering and the military. So "tribal" resonates, but let's consider what happens if we expand the concept slightly. Will workgroups make hiring decisions as they do now at Whole Foods or Semco? Will we have the group choose leaders or rotate leadership depending on the task as is done in some cultures?

Wally -

What a great distinction; and I agree completely. I think nature offers especially good models (and it's no coincidence that many pre-literate societies' structures draw from nature).

And I do believe that, in workgroups that have high trust and shared vision and values, many of the tasks and responsibilities now filled by leaders (like hiring) can be more widely distributed.

As for the group choosing leaders -it seems to me that already happens in some important ways. I've often seen leaders fail primarily because they can't inspire the support of the group they're supposed to be leading!

Always love your comments -


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