"We gravitate towards band-level society whenever we have the option. Our social circles will tend to have a band-like quality to them, as Steve Thomas highlighted. When resources grow thin and the luxury of hierarchy can no longer be afforded, we consistently see people turn to band-level groups. In the wake of Katrina, "tribes" formed in New Orleans' French Quarter. Daniel Quinn pointed to cults and gangs as responding to this same impulse towards the small, tightly-knit community--even if they often neglected the essential element of egalitarianism.
Tribalism: Culture Wars at Work
Excerpted from an article by Dr. Ann McGee
How often have you seen people form tribes within an organization? Craft workers unite in grievance against office staff that don't "understand or appreciate" the job they do. Older staff resent Gen X and Y for lack of loyalty or arrogance. Long-term employees distrust new hires while the new folks shake their heads impatiently at the old ways. Regional companies going global find deep differences in the ways people communicate "overseas." The end result? Workers compete in "silos" that resist interdependent teaming and appreciation for diversity.
Message To The Field
Herb Kelleher, Chairman of Southwest Airlines, confronted tribalism head-on in one of his "Messages to the Field" to alert his people to a silent yet deadly internal enemy. First, he carefully spelled out the clear business challenges as two major competitors threatened his beloved Southwest in new markets on the West Coast. These two carriers had far larger financial resources to throw into the battle for Customers. "Our greatest advantage is our People and the unmatched Customer Service and Teamwork we bring to any challenge. But make no mistake about it. If we fall into the trap of internal tribalism, with one station or city competing for resources against another, or with the reservations team sparring with marketing, or any other or the many internal points of potential conflict, we will lose our collective focus and can easily join the dozens of airlines no longer in business."
Herb reminded his team of all the many insurmountable challenges they had overcome year by year through creative teamwork. With story after story, lifting up the selfless leadership and teamwork so traditional in Southwest, he called his teammates to get a clear focus on serving the Customer by pulling together as one. He carefully noted that it's all too common to point fingers and polarize. Yet great teams stay fiercely loyal to each other and use their different perspectives to create a clearer picture of both the problem and possible solutions.
As a result of Herb's speech, Southwest Employees rose to the challenge with a generosity of spirit and selfless teamwork that others would find unbelievable. Pilots volunteered to work double shifts as volunteers loading baggage while recruiters worked to find new employees in California with a can-do work ethic. Top leaders flew in to load baggage and work the ticket counters to take up the slack. Culture Committee members organized employee appreciation events, cooking hundreds of burgers and serving chili dogs to lift the spirits of those on the line who were working extra hours to keep all flights on-time. Meals were served to all three shifts around the clock in maintenance hangers to show appreciation for the valiant efforts of the maintenance team.
Why is tribalism so prevalent in corporate America? Why do employees join hands against fellow employees? First, the impulse to join others is universal and natural. We want to belong. And in a country where the old familial and communal ties have been cut loose, that need must be fulfilled in other ways. Since we spend most of our lives "at work," many companies now encourage more than merely "professional" relationships among their employees.
Also, when people are anxious and fearful about the future, they often bond against the enemy, whether it's the boss, the field, new talent being hired at higher wages, or new technology. "Us against them" is a common response to the unknown.
How do companies counteract this competitive edge? At Southwest Airlines, the flight crews and schedulers faced off over late "fill-in" replacements for sick/absent crew members. The schedulers job was to keep the flights running on time. In order to do that, they often had to call in off- duty pilots or flight attendants at the last minute, forcing them to abandon whatever plans they had made for the next few days. As a result, the last people crew members wanted to hear from were schedulers.
To try and come up with a third-right answer, they formed an action team of representatives from both groups to explore creative solutions. Out of these discussions, an exchange was set up whereby flight crew members subbed for schedulers while schedulers flew with replacement crew members to get an idea of what it was like dealing with the pressures and complexities of each other's job.
Another creative alternative to tribalism within Southwest is their annual "Heroes of the Heart" celebration which happens every Valentine's Day. Each year a team within the Culture Committee invites nominations for departments within the company that are vital to the success of Southwest, but may be unsung heroes. Then, on Valentine's Day, there is a special celebration complete with videotape as the suspense builds. The winning team is awarded special trophies, special flight passes, and their department's name is added to a special heroes plane that flies in their honor for a full year.
One of the roots of tribalism is firmly anchored in the soil of hierarchical structures. Highly stratified business cultures often create a perceived, if not real, gap between upper management and those they supervise. Misunderstandings between these two groups quickly lead to lack of trust, signaled by resentment, backbiting, high turnover, competing visions and lowered productivity.
In addition to these two commonly found "tribes," new hires and old hands often face off. The company treats new people as foreign and "dangerous." The pride of prejudice, "we are better than you," shows its ugly head as the tribe closes ranks to defend against new ideas and cultural differences. Read more
Printed with permission by Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper
© 2006 Adventure Associates, Inc.