Category Archives: Employee Tribe

How Tribes can hurt Companies

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Hi everyone, I have been really busy with my literature review for my PHD and will share some of these insights in the next little while, however it has been really exciting and some new insights for you to build your business or organisation. It the mean time I found this article from Robert Kovach in the Harvard Business Review, that I thought was really interesting on Tribes.

Tony Park

How Tribalism Hurts Companies, and What to Do About It

 A strange thing happens just before mile marker three in the London Marathon. With approximately 40,000 runners participating in one of the world’s largest charity fundraising events, crowd control necessitates that there be three different starting points. Just before the three-mile marker, these three different routes start to merge onto a single course.

jul17-25-538348459As the different routes start to converge most of the runners start to cheer as they are meeting comrades to join in what remains of the grueling, 26.2-mile journey. However, many of the runners start to boo the runners who are from a different color starting group. All are amateur runners participating in the same race and for fairly similar reasons. For a very short time only, and pretty much by random, they have been separated into different starting positions and assigned to a red, blue, or green group.

The competitive nature of some participants is so high that this random color assigned is enough to evoke an identity. We essentially become red, blue, or green tribes and, when meeting a group of the other color, we are encountering members of one of the other tribes. Hence, booing them makes sense as the others are not part of our tribe.

I have run this marathon several times and, surprising enough, the same thing happens every single time. It’s like something out of William Golding’s Lord of the FliesConsider for a moment how often this happens at work.

Tribes at Work

In the business world, even when we are in the same company, we often find ourselves at cross-purposes with our colleagues. Sales organizations want flexibility to meet changing customer demands while engineering and operations need stability to drive scale and efficiency. Offices in different countries or regions want solutions specific to their unique markets, while corporate headquarters requires all units to align to a single, clear strategy. Centers of expertise are set up to create long-range, big-picture, innovative strategies to assist client-facing, front-line employees who typically want immediate fixes for customer pain points.

Even though everyone is on the same team, the goals and needs are different. This environment sets the stage for functional units to adopt a mindset that is more “us vs. them” rather than “us vs. our competitors.” The functional groups stop communicating effectively with each other and that’s when things start to go tribal. In my experience, at this point you’ll start to see several red flags:

  1. Rock-throwing. Are teams blaming each other, unjustly criticizing the others’ work or continually throwing rocks at one another? This is a pretty clear sign. I had a client once where the disagreements between design, engineering, and marketing were so strong that the teams couldn’t work together without arguing. In fact, things became so bad that the executives in charge could barely speak to one another without HR in the room.
  2. Blaming the customer. Blaming the customer or end consumer occurs all too frequently, and can be another sign that inter-team rivalry is spiraling out of control. In fact, in the end, the only thing the team above could agree on was that it was the customer’s fault their new product had failed! Even when teams aren’t throwing rocks directly at each other, scapegoating the customer is a sign that something’s off. I sat in another, very amicable, meeting where sales, manufacturing and logistics absolved themselves completely and unequivocally agreed that the multi-million-dollar loss was because the consumer was not sophisticated enough to understand how they were supposed to consume their product.
  3. Pushkin did it.” In Russia, when you don’t know who did something it is common to say “Pushkin did it.” The Dutch have something similar with the saying, “It was the dwarves.” A lack of productive collaboration between teams is much more likely to be caused by clunky processes and structures, foggy communication, or misaligned incentives than to stem from from dwarves or Alexander Pushkin. Be on the lookout for missed deadlines or commitments where neither side understands or admits why.
  4. Refusal to work together. This is perhaps the most severe case of tribalism. When whole departments or organizations refuse to cooperate with one another. Can you imagine that: a culture of mistrust and rewarding the lack of cooperation between hundreds of people in the same company? When working together across departments to find a joint solution is seen to be collaborating with the enemy? In the early 2000s, many human resource organizations demarcated between centers of expertise (COEs) and client-facing groups. The COEs were to be the “professional experts” and the client-facing groups the “customer experts.”  It didn’t take long for turf wars about who owned the customer (i.e., business unit executive) to start. In some companies, this got so severe that the two groups refused to even speak with one another. Instead, initiatives would duplicate or triplicate across the corporation.  As you can imagine, this is a very expensive form of corporate tribalism.

What can you do?

Here are a few tips which have proven to be useful to other leaders in this situation:

  1. Manage the psychology. This is probably the most important. When there are conflicting goals in a competitive environment, you cannot let human nature run on autopilot. Deindividuation may begin to take place with battling departments starting to demonize one another. Amygdala hijacks, where one may emotionally overreact to the stimulus of the situation, is also a risk.
  2. Reframing. It’s the responsibility of the leader to frame the situation and environment for their followers.  Be careful with how you define the mission or goal for the teams that will be going after the goals. If collaboration or a new way of working is important, then say so.
  3. Break down silos. Companies in the 21st Century will need to be far less siloed then those in the 20th Century. Expertise, knowledge, and skills are widely distributed and it is imperative to break down information and data silos to be competitive.
  4. Manage executive egos. An old consulting rule of thumb is to spot where the problem is occurring and then look one level above. Are your senior leaders sending the right messages around collaboration and cooperation? Are they being rewarded to do so?  If your senior leadership isn’t displaying the behavior that is needed then it won’t happen at lower levels.

Actively managing the human dynamics at play will help your organization reap the benefits of having different specialty areas in your company, while at the same time mitigating the downsides of tribalism.

Robert Kovach, Ph.D., is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed here are his own and not those of Cisco.

Tony is a author, entrepreneur and mentor, PHD candidate at UTas, investigating Guanxi networks. 

Its critical to engage your Employee Tribe.

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Its critical to engage your Employee Tribe.

Understanding Employee Tribes will help you and your business to be much more efficient and save you real money, however if you get it wrong it can become so acidic for your business that it could lead to real challenges to its survival.

InImage result for "business tribe" my new book – “Business tribes. Turbo charge your circle of Influence, for profit” I outline some ideas on why and
how you can Understand, Engage and Maintain your tribes, including employee tribes.
As business grow, this is one tribe that sometimes is left behind as the owners think that all the people working with them have the same passion for the business as they do. They cannot understand that people have their own particular life challenges and personal goals that sometimes align with the business – but sometimes they don’t.

Communication, Understanding and Joint Goals are 3 strategies that combine to understand your employee tribe and what they can do for you and your business. 

Below is a a reflection by Liz Ryan a contibutor to Forbes, on a great business Zappos that had developed itself into one of the leading companies that could empowered and engaged their employees, truly creating a Tribe atmosphere that turbo charged their business.

However a change of management made greater challenges as they TOOK AWAY those things that made that Tribe a Tribe and not only made the employees look for a new job, but is putting the whole business into jeopardy.


What’s Causing Zappos To ‘Hemorrhage’ Talent?

This NYT story tells the sad tale of Zappos, long known as a great place to work, now losing employees at an alarming rate — but why? It’s because Zappos, revered for its friendly and open culture for years, adopted a radical new management approach that is driving employees out the doors.

What went wrong? “Holacracy,” the non-hierarchical, non-structured approach the company is in the process of installing, obviously isn’t every team member’s cup of tea, but the story goes deeper than that.

Zappos’ new leadership philosophy was designed to give its employees latitude, but it’s actually sending them away in droves. According to a Zappos executive quoted in the story above, 18 percent of its workforce has bailed since last March. That’s 260 employees out the door.

That is what you’d have to expect when you tell your employees “You’re going to have all the latitude you want — but only the kind of latitude we want you to have!”

Zappos now risks killing the goose that laid golden eggs for its customers and parent corporation Amazon for years. You can’t make a workplace better by shoving an executive team’s favorite version of self-directed leadership down its employees’ throats.

If the Zappos management team really cared about its employees’ level of latitude, they would have asked the employees how to lead the company rather than forcing “Holacracy” on them.

Telling people exactly how the company is going to work is the opposite of giving people latitude, and Zappos’ leaders should have known that.

In a Human Workplace you ask your brilliant teammates how they want to be led. You don’t push enormous changes on them in a huge social experiment and do them the extra injury of telling them that they’re going to simply love the new system if they just give it a chance!


When people are marginalized, it’s very hard to get them excited. It’s beyond ironic that Zappos wants its employees to get excited about losing hierarchy in the operation when the hierarchical structure is exactly what allowed the leadership to force “Holacracy” into place.

The message comes through strongly: “Get in line or get out!” Does that sound like latitude to you?

Liz Ryan

Contributor to Forbes.

A once great business, now with a range of tribal challenges – a major one being Employee Tribes, that may be critical for the ongoing survival of the business. Not understanding Tribes in general or employee tribes in particular is a little understood business skill that is not taught in your standard MBA course – but without it your business will have ongoing challenges that will hinder and may be critical for its future survival.

Tony Parkcharacter print  and 


Tony has written a co-authored book with Brian Tracy ; Ignite your life and his new book, Business Tribes. Turbocharge your circle of influence, for profit – out in May.