How do you ‘define’ yourself? If you were to list five things that describe you, what would they be?
It is human nature to want to be in tribes, and to define ourselves by the tribes that we belong to, the ones we aspire to, and the ones that we want to distance ourselves from.
“I would not dream of belonging to a club that is willing to have me as a member” [Goucho Marx]
Knowing the social psychology of how we behave in tribes can help us really understand aspects of our culture, behaviour and even how we can be better leaders. It can help us understand what drives extremism, group think, innovation and fads. We all belong to many tribes and this act of belonging can influence us in powerful ways.
Understanding human tribal behaviour is critical for businesses to understand their customers, for leaders to understand their employees and valuable in understanding the behaviour of those around us (and ourselves), and deconstructing our ‘tribal behaviour’ reveals a lot about how people operate in most situations.
What is a tribe?
Go back to the list of five things that describe you. More than likely, these five things describe ‘tribes’ with which you are either a part of, or aspire to join. That is, you and others that identify as belonging to these tribes have a common identity concept, share common interests or aspire to common goals. Belonging to a tribe gives us safety and security, allows us to share resources, to align with like-minded people and to achieve our own personal goals more quickly or to a higher standard. Tribes have always been important to humans, and our social behaviour in and between tribes has had a massive impact on our psychology and behaviour.
Seth Godin has written an excellent book on the concept of tribes, and has a TED talk on the subject. For me, moving beyond recognition that tribal concepts in society have always been with us – and are becoming even more important in the Social Age – to deeply understand people and their tribes gives us practical tools to become better leaders, change agents and members of our society.
We each can belong to many tribes at the same time, each with differing importance and relevance in our specific context. For example, the five descriptors you listed for yourself above will become more or less important to you depending on the context you find yourself in. At a local football match, your national tribal membership may be less important than your team affiliation, whilst at an international fixture, your nationality will be more important than your local team affiliation, for example.
In the age of social connectivity, tribes can also be virtual. We can sign online petitions, be members of online communities, like pages on Facebook and even follow hashtag discussions on twitter. As we engage with others through physical or virtual means, we can identify with the tribe – particularly if it is something we feel strongly about. Tribes can be teams at work, supporter groups of sporting teams, political or religious groups or just people with common interests (model train enthusiasts, for example, are a specific tribe). Some tribes are bigger than others – if you have seen the coverage of comic book conventions, you are seeing a tribe converge and connect with a strong common interest.
What happens inside tribes?
Once we ‘belong’ to a tribe (because we have decided that we belong to it, and we have not been actively excluded), we draw social value from belonging. Members of a tribe gain status and social identity by belonging, which in turn enhances the individual’s self-esteem. To do this, a person compares themselves with other members of their tribe to find positive values and characteristics which enhance their self-esteem (and focus of negative characteristics of people who are not of their ‘tribe’ for comparison too). They build shared experiences and stories which enhance their sense of belonging and create the underlying cultural identity.
Inside a tribe there will be an idea of what a ‘prototype’ member is – this is usually a non-specific representation of how a ‘typical’ member should be, even how they should look and how they should behave. It is usually no more than a ‘fuzzy’ set of attributes which most of the tribe would recognise, but are often very difficult to describe. Individuals of a tribe will manage themselves against this prototypical representation as a way of managing their self-presentation, to ensure that they maintain their membership and status in a group.
Individuals within tribes work hard to determine where they fit. In real terms, they are seeking to understand if they are ‘in or out’ (inclusion), ‘up or down’ (what level of control they have within the tribe) and ‘open or closed’ (how much they are trusted and can honestly share). Each person, based upon their own self-view, will aim to fit into the tribe at different levels – some will seek to be the leader whilst others are happy just to be included, and enjoy being out of the limelight. We see this in all aspects of our lives – people who seek high levels of control, people who demand to be seen as significant and those who share every detail, versus people who shun the limelight, are happy for others to lead, and those who are only comfortable discussing superficial or business related topics.
There is a place in every tribe for all types of people. In fact, could you imagine a tribe where everyone was fighting it out to be leader? It doesn’t work (but sounds a lot like many corporate boardrooms!). Helping people understand where they are most comfortable in a tribe, and helping them achieve that, is a brilliant way to lead and create team harmony.
Tribes also cause problems
One of the issues that emerges as people establish tribes is how they compare themselves to people in other tribes. The more similar the tribes are to each other, the greater desire there will be to amplify differences. As the tribes amplify differences, the tribes move to more and more extreme positions of behaviour and beliefs (particularly about the comparator tribes), to distance themselves from the ‘outsiders’ as much as possible.
The problem that this can create is the representation of what is ‘prototypical’ for members also shifts to more and more extreme positions, which therefore draws the whole tribe to ever more ‘radicalised’ positions (“Its Us versus Them!”). Leaders can use this as a vehicle to take more power (by assuming more radical positions that the tribe), or moderated by leaders who can work to keep the tribe from becoming over radicalised, which may lose them members and power from those who are overly focussed on the external comparisons. Again, it is the quality of the mission and its articulation which is important in helping the group focus on what is important to it, rather than respond to comparator out-groups for how they should be.
In some ways, the extremist religious views of specific ‘tribes’ within major religions can be seen to have formed on the basis of intergroup comparison and difference amplification. A great leader will stay on purpose and work to keep the tribe operating on its values to reach its common goals, using their idiosyncratic power to stop any radicalisation drift whilst still allowing differences from other groups to be acknowledged.
Importantly, individuals need to work out where they fit into the pecking order and social structures of the tribe. Just because they want to belong does not make them a member as being part of a tribe also takes the consent and acceptance of the other members. Friction can emerge between tribe members as they work out where each other fits.
In more extreme situations, individuals can be excluded from their tribe. Exclusion in primitive situations was often a death sentence, as the ability to fend for one’s self was much tougher than being part of a functional group. The need to be included and to find a place in tribes still drives a lot of social behaviours even in modern scenarios. This can be seen in ways that people behave when they believe they have been excluded, humiliated or rejected (ie, excluded from the tribe), or aspire to belong to a certain tribe or clique. The concept of ‘peer group pressure’ can be explained in the way that members of a tribe can encourage individuals to take sometimes quite drastic actions to feel as if they ‘belong’.
How do we use what we know about tribes?
If we are all inherently tribal in our approach, how can we use this understanding to be a better leader? Firstly, when we are passionate about something, we can accumulate a tribe to help us. Building a tribe starts by having a really clear purpose that people can align to, including a common goal which is meaningful to the individual. You cannot ‘force’ people into tribes, but you can inspire them. This means that the way in which you communicate and inspire others to come together based upon your purpose, commonalities and goals is crucial.
Once a tribe is forming, a leader also sets the tone for what is normal, or prototypical, in the tribe. The members look to the leader – who is most visible and salient – as the guide to what ‘prototypical’ looks like. This means that the actions and words of the leader will heavily impact the culture and standards within the tribe. They can also influence what the tribe will see as in-group and out-group behaviours.
Members within a tribe give each other ‘idiosyncratic credit’ – that is, they will let other members get away with things that they would not tolerate from non-members. Leaders, in particular, are given the greatest latitude to behave somewhat differently. This is critical in leading change, because as a leader shifts behaviour, it can become the new ‘prototype’ for the tribe.
The leader can also use the idiosyncratic credit to drive innovation by catching ideas from the tribe and showing interest in them (adding their own credit and ‘charisma’ to them). If someone in a meeting comes up with a good idea, often it can be quickly shouted down or over-run by other things, unless the leader uses their position to recognise the idea, and offer it to the group for consideration.
Great leaders will also take the tribe through steps to ensure that all of the members of the tribe feel that they belong in a way that is comfortable for them. Ensuring that they feel included is the first step – working out how ‘included’ members want to be relative to each other is important. Some members will be really comfortable being highly significant, and in the middle of everything, whilst others would feel terribly uncomfortable in the limelight, and are happy with lower levels of inclusion.
The leader then needs to help the tribe who has control of what, who is competent at what, and how much control should be held by whom. Again, every member will have different preferences (have you ever worked with a control freak? Or how about with someone who tried to avoid any responsibility?) and helping the tribe be aware of where everyone fits and performs best helps the tribe perform. Finally, the members of the tribe have to work out how much they trust one another, and on what topics. Again, there are a series of preferences that the individuals in the group may express, from completely open about everything to ‘business/task only’.
Understanding that people fit into tribes differently should encourage great leaders to be conscious of how they interact with members, as individuals and in group scenarios. It can also explain the way that people behave in social situations as they try to be included in groups, compare themselves to real (or fictitious) out-groups, or try to find their place in tribes that they belong to.
The fact that we can build tribes of teams and workgroups, families and social groups means that we can apply ‘tribal leadership’ in each of these situations. In a work team, for example, having really well defined and articulated purpose, goals and values allows the members to want to buy in (and become a tribe). How you then lead them by understanding their tribal behaviour will either enhance collaboration and performance, or hinder it. Helping people find their place, defining culture and standards, identifying useful comparator groups, assisting innovation, breaking group think and extreme positions and promoting values and performance are all powerful things that a leader can do for their ‘tribe’.
Understanding that it is human nature to form tribes allows us to consider ‘tribal actions and leadership’ in how we lead, drive change, understand behaviour and make valuable contributions in our communities. Consider how you can
- Create a clear purpose and goal orientation which is important to others, and help them get there.
- Attract people with the same vision of purpose and goal. Move along those who do not.
- Define the culture of the group using prototypical status, controlling for extremist behaviours versus other groups.
- Use idiosyncratic credit to lead (demonstrate) change, capture and operate on innovation.
- Help people fit into a tribe and find their place faster to increase adaption, comfort and performance.
- Understand the 3 phase process of inclusion-control status – trust that members have to go through as a tribe so they know how they and the others fit in.
- Understand that people without a common goal or purpose are more like a ‘factory’ than a tribe. A factory doesn’t need a leader, it needs a manager.
- As you see news reports of people who strongly identify with specific ‘tribes’, how are they responding from their prototypical position, and how did that become extreme? Compared to what? How do you view their behaviour from your own ‘tribal’ position?
- Act in ways that draw people to you on causes that matter, and form tribes which want to make a difference together.
What can you do to become a ‘tribal leader’?