Sunday 16/12/2018 - 03:51 am


Tribalism In Business: Why We As Leaders Must, And How We Can, Push It Back


2017.01.21 06:33

 The tumultuous 2016 election, which finally ended with President Trump’s inauguration today, brought home how much American society, and indeed Western society, have become “tribalized”. I rarely heard the word “tribalism” before the last couple of years. Webster defines it to mean: “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group”.

 
Now tribalism seems to dominate the news. It’s a major force behind the anti-immigrant movement that is shaping politics in the U.S., Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. Trump, Saunders, and Obama stand accused of basing their politics on tribalism. The rise of Facebook, Twitter, etc. splintered media into a channel for every group, with the story in each channel tailored to the beliefs and prejudices of the group, and little fact-checking. Some blame this for the rise of fake news. President Obama in his final address argued this splintering feeds tribalism and divisions in society: "Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions."
 
Tribalism has advanced to a point where it fundamentally shapes the ability of many people to absorb the information presented to them and think critically. President Trump won to a large extent on the basis of a promise to bring back jobs that [he says] immigrants and low-cost foreign producers have stolen. Most serious analysts believe and have often said that can’t and won’t happen, e.g. the analysis of Erie, Pa that Marketplace broadcast January 19. Voters are simply not listening to credible experts.
 
Tribalism in business is common. Labor/management discord and the union dynamics that it spawns (unions foster and feed on tribalism) is the classic case. It happens in more subtle ways even if there are no unions and no blue/white collar distinctions. When you hold middle managers accountable for things they can’t control, they eventually lose respect for senior management, cease to care about their work, and focus on avoiding attention until they can find a better job. When you change retail workers schedules every day and send them home an hour early when business is light, they cease to care about your business’ success.
 
Tribalism feeds on failed communication. When people do not understand what is really happening and why, they are susceptible to facile explanations that feel good and appeal to prejudices. The complexity and subtlety of the forces that shape business today make this challenge greater. It’s hard to explain to line workers why being part of a global supply chain, and the job displacement that can cause, is key to the survival of a business.
 
Dysfunction is normal in politics: after all, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But businesses need to function smoothly and work as teams. Tribalism poisons this.
 
To be efficient and competitive while delivering excellence to customers, we need the full effort and commitment of our people, and that means we need to push tribalism back. How you do this is not mysterious; it’s based on effective leadership and treating people well. Key leadership tasks are articulating the company’s goals and strategy, helping people understand what is happening and why, giving them goals and metrics that are as clear as possible, creating conditions for success, and talking honestly about failure: why it happened, what caused it (including senior management’s role), and what should be learned and changed.
 
It’s also important to make the economics work for everyone. Money is limited, however, paying a little more than competitors, and/or giving employees a profit share or equity, goes a long way to make the company a family rather than feuding tribes. And it helps you hire better people and retain your best people: a good investment.
 
Healthcare is the economic millstone of our time. While governments pay for healthcare in almost all advanced countries, the U.S. makes it employers’ responsibility, and that can be a huge burden for small businesses in industries with low market wage levels. The more you can do for employees, the better. It’s life-changing when a child or spouse is sick and an employee can’t afford healthcare.
 
Last but not least, set the right tone. Tone is about showing warmth and respect to all your people, and to customers and outsiders too. It’s about taking time to listen and showing that you understand. It’s about fair dealing when you have the advantage and doing more than you have to do for people who have served your company loyally and well. Most important, it’s about trust: building trust, keeping trust, and trusting your people, even when that involves risk.
 
Tribalism is the power pill in politics now. We’ll see how that works out. It’s not good for business, of that I am certain. If we push back tribalism in our companies we will do much better, and perhaps the country will heal a bit too.
Write a Comment:
* Name  
E-mail  
Title  
* Comment
* Enter the word on the picture