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.
As 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 Flies. Consider 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.