Understanding tribal behaviour at work will change your life

leadership meeting culture shifting norms

(This article is from my Thursday FrictionFree email - get it in your inbox every week)

Tribes are how human society formed to survive safely in a dangerous world. A hundred people in a tribe could take turns keeping watch and defending the group from predators or another tribe. One person on their own would struggle to survive 24 hours. Therefore staying safe in the tribe is important. Strategies for being safe in the tribe include being the leader - or alternatively being useful or socially acceptable.

Human behaviour in groups hasn’t moved on too much since then. There are not so many predators on a business park near you nowadays. But there are competitors both for our products and for our jobs and our brains are still wired to stay safe in our tribe.

Meetings are the ultimate group setting for tribal behaviour at work. Lots of multi-way interactions, usually without a clear set of rules.

Let’s take a really basic human example.

Imagine you’ve been in a group meeting all morning. You pop out for 10 minutes and when you return, you find someone new has arrived and is sitting right there in your seat, chatting to everyone.

What’s the feeling?

It’s a weird primal feeling.


We can’t explain or rationalise it. There are other seats available. But it can be a strong feeling. It’s a feeling of competition - a kind of micro-threat. 

Imagine, you then realise that your jumper and laptop were on that seat and the new person has moved these to the side of the room. The feeling magnifies.


These feelings indicate how powerfully we are influenced by micro-threats to our status in the tribe. When we sit somewhere, we’ve somewhat gained control of the environment around us including the tacit agreement with those next to us that ‘this is my area and that is yours’.

When we leave our things there, we have effectively personalised the space and there is a sense we have defended it against the invasion of others. All of this is tribal, territorial. We don’t need it now, but it’s still ingrained in our brain.

What about the territory of our role? Within an organisation, we all claim our bit of a space, our niche - projects we work on, the specific thing we are skilled at. When others casually mention they are doing something that overlaps with something important we're doing, it’s the same feeling.

“Oh. I normally do that. That’s my thing.”

We have claimed that space and others have tacitly agreed. Threats to that space can threaten our identity and our value to the tribe.

When we are affected even by something we rationally know is no threat in the 21st century, our body’s automatic reaction is to release stress hormones and to send blood to the older part of our brain. We are in fight/flight/freeze mode. Our behaviour changes.

For example we might feel somewhat under-appreciated or a bit undermined or slightly sidelined or micro-managed or somewhat misunderstood. Even under very mild threat, we can react differently from how we would if we felt valued, included and understood etc.

So what does this tribal threat system help explain?

  |  Wanting to be right, rather than to examine the facts?

  |  Being defensive (even mildly)? That’s all about maintaining status in the tribe.

  |  Feeling competitive rather than collaborative?

  |  Wanting to be involved, consulted, included? All about being a core part of the tribe.

  |  Wanting your idea to be ‘the winning idea’? Wanting to be recognised for your idea? Wanting an idea recognised as yours?

  |  Wanting to talk a lot? Status in the tribe.

  |  Not wanting to talk at all? Fear of upsetting status in the tribe.


Of course, most of these things do the opposite of making us safe in today’s tribe.

We want to work with people who don’t need to be right, who can speak honestly and listen hard too, who want to build on shared ideas and share the credit.

But under pressure, we can all end up in some of those tribally places.

Understanding tribal behaviour is very important.

That’s why my work is all about setting up interactions which encourage helpful behaviours and discourage unhelpful tribal behaviours.

Today we've talked about just one tribe. Of course in most organisations, there are multiple tribes at work and we get problems not just within a tribe but BETWEEN tribes. But this is for another day!


 References and further reading 

  1. *Not absolutely everything. There is also how the printer works, which no one can explain.
  2. There is a nice breakdown of tribal behaviour based on tribe vs individual security here.



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