In Business, Informal Tribes Matter More Than Formal Teams

Not long after I joined my last employer, a colleague provided me with an incredibly important insight on how to get things done. Informal networks, she explained, were much stronger than the official hierarchy. Top-down decisions were usually met with questions which delayed their implementation. On the other hand, powerfully-connected people could implement decisions virally and more quickly. Her advice was to build my own network by investing in informal relationships.

Recently I read the book “Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization” and discovered that the authors had codified many of the networking lessons I have learned over the years. The authors describe the informal networks as tribes and claim they are more powerful than formal teams in an organizational hierarchy. Each tribe has a leader and a specific culture.

The book’s authors believe that every tribe operates at one of five stages. Increasing stages improves both job satisfaction and performance. Therefore, the more tribes an organization has at the higher stages, the better the company’s overall performance will be.

Here’s a synopsis of each stage:

  1. Theme: Life Sucks
    People view the work environment as hopeless and, in some cases, they are hostile to each other or destructive to the company.
  2. Theme: My Life Sucks
    While the company might survive, their own situation is hopeless. Nothing new strikes any passion; in fact, new ideas are often regarded as not truly new.
  3. Theme: I’m Great (and you’re not)
    These tribes believe they are better than others and, for them to win, other tribes must lose. But they are a collection of “lone warriors” who focus on personal benefits.
  4. Theme: We’re Great (and they’re not)
    The tribe has a shared sense of being with an identified foe which is outside the company. If you take the tribe away, “the person’s sense of self suffers a loss.”
  5. Theme: Life Is Great
    These tribes share a collective belief that anything is possible and that the right thing will happen, regardless of current circumstances. The tribal network contains a “stunning amount of diversity.”

A tribal leader helps move a tribe from one stage to the next. For example, to move a tribe from stage 2 to stage 3, a leader should assign short duration projects that require little managerial oversight. Too much intervention might reinforce the notion that “my life sucks” which is the essence of stage 2. In 1-on-1 sessions, show people how important their contributions are and that they are valued. Finally, encourage people at stage 2 to build relationships with people at stage 3 which might help them become lone warriors.

The technique to advance a tribe to the next stage varies depending on which stage it’s in. This idea helps explain why many management books sound good in theory but don’t always pan out in practice. Management advice might work in one situation but not in another.

One universal piece of advice: pay attention to who you hang out with. Your tribal network has significant impact on both your own success and your company’s performance.

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One Response to In Business, Informal Tribes Matter More Than Formal Teams

  1. cylkowski October 16, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

    Johnathan,

    I always find your blogs interesting and this time is no exception. I just couldn’t disagree with you more about “tribes,” per se.

    Seth Godin led off the recent trendy call for tribal connectedness in his 2008 book, “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us,” a rambling mess of his previously published blogs. He cited no resources for all his assumptions and relied on the fact that all the Seth Godin fans would just follow along. They did in Tribe-like manner.

    Then two years later, Seth Godin published “Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?” Linchpin took almost the opposite point of view. As Godin writes, “Every day I meet people who have so much to give but have been bullied enough or frightened enough to hold it back. It’s time to stop complying with the system and draw your own map.” What? Was he kidding? That’s exactly the opposite.

    Logan’s book, “Tribal Leadership,” defines tribes as a maximum of 150 people. So enterprise-sized companies are made up of many tribes? That’s exactly the problem. Silos, protected fiefdoms, and cliques constrain cooperation and collegiality in Healthcare, for example. The Healthcare administrators have an “us against them” tribal contention vs. the clinical providers – actually, it goes both ways.

    Peter Block presented a broader perspective when he wrote, “Community.” Block’s book looks at how to break down these “tribal” barriers and get things done for the common good of the whole community. I encourage you to read “Community” for another viewpoint.

    Personally, I am sick of tribalism. Tribal as a philosophy is too narrow, fractious, polarizing, close-minded, and probably racist. And the word “tribal” suggests paternalism, anti-diversity, and being inbred.

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