How about more tribes and less tribalism?

In his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin popularized the idea of informal tribes in society, consisting of “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” A shared interest and a mode of communication are necessary to enable a tribe, and thanks to the power of the Internet, both are made especially easy.

Modern-day tribes can bring people together over shared interests, organize for positive change, and create networks that cut across distances. With the right leaders at the helm, they can do wonderful things.

However, tribes also can generate insularity and hostility toward outsiders. Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard magazine, observes that “tribalism — accompanied by active hatred for perceived outsiders — [is] emerging as a driving force everywhere from Middle Eastern battlefields to the halls of Congress.”

So it follows, do tribe members necessarily engage in tribalism? Well, it depends, suggests Jacobs. He cites research indicating that those who believe in the tribe’s purpose, but who also possess a strong ethical code that accords to all people a degree of “moral regard,” are less likely to behave in tribalistic ways.

These lines of research may hold much insight into how our society has become so fractured in terms of politics, ideology, and social mores. They also shed light on employee relations, both within and between common groupings, such as executives, mid-level management, staff, and labor. And when we toss into the mix a healthy understanding of the role of leadership in shaping organizational behavior (and individual conduct within), then a lot of light bulbs may start to flip on.

In addition, this discussion returns us to notions of human dignity. In a world where conflict, difference, and disagreement are inevitable, and where people will naturally bond into tribes based on common interests and beliefs, how can we create a society that provides everyone with a baseline of dignity?

5 responses

  1. David, I haven’t read the entire study that the article reports, but I think another important factor in tribalism – which Godin mentions – is the leader. The “managerial mystique” – the belief that a manager/leader should be followed or obeyed just because of his/her position, and the belief that managers/leaders have better insights or decisions just because of their role – can also cause “tribe” members to act in ways that contradict their own ethics or morals.

  2. Just had to comment.
    I was talking with an attorney friend of my girlfriend about my frustration with trying to get through to local attorneys about my experiences with workplace bullying, some of it in legal associated workplaces. She said, “You have to understand, attorneys are very tribal.” (Like protecting each other from responsibility?)

    The following is part of an interview piece that appeared in Vanity Fair magazine:

    August 2013
    John Malkovich
    He has been in more than 70 movies, including this month’s Red 2. The actor, producer, designer, and self-proclaimed “geezer” feels lucky to wear so many hats

    What is your idea of perfect happiness? Watching seeds grow in the greenhouse. Drawing or reading or cooking.
    What is your greatest fear? That the Proust Questionnaire will continue to be used by lazy, overworked journalists for another century or so (since you asked …).
    Which living person do you most admire? Spencer Haywood, an American basketball player, once said that real stars are people who work in a factory and instill good values in their children. I admire sensible, kind people. They’re not often famous.
    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? How long do we have?

    What is the trait you most deplore in others? The susceptibility to ideology or tribalism.

    What is your favorite occupation? Don’t have one. I like every occupation I’ve been blessed with having the opportunity to investigate.
    What is your most marked characteristic? Curiosity.
    What do you most value in your friends? That they’re kind, trustworthy, smart, and can hear and communicate and aren’t afraid to do so.
    Who are your favorite writers? Many. William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Don DeLillo, Jean-François Revel, Gabriel García Márquez, Antony Beevor, Andreï Makine, Vasily Grossman, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Hampton, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Christopher Hitchens, Mario Vargas Llosa, Simon Sebag Montefiore, and of course Roberto Bolaño. Many others, needless to say … V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Karl Schlögel, and Dr. Seuss, Richard Wright, Edward Gibbon, Winston Churchill, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Marquis de Sade, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Charlie Kaufman for the movies, Michel Houellebecq, et al.
    Who is your favorite hero of fiction? I quite like Holden Caulfield. I also liked the Klaus Kinski character in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
    Who are your heroes in real life? Martin Luther King Jr. and my father.

    Forces for a baseline human dignity? Open, honest, reasoned critical thinking, intellectual AND emotional empathy.
    “What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out.” –Bertrand Russell
    “The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” –Meryl Streep

    • Many professions engage in tribalism, especially when issues of public accountability and liability are involved. Attorneys certainly are among them. Others include politicians (heh, lots of lawyers), physicians, and law enforcement.

  3. This is classic intergroup relations work and the challenge of ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation. These dynamics intensify under threat. I am glad to see the extensive research in this area being applied to an understanding of groups and units at work and ways to prevent the favoritism-derogation connection. I particularly loved his use of “moral regard” or what is called in other work ‘scope of justice”. So how do we help people expand their scope of justice? Donna Hicks wrote a good book based on her experiences working with war-torn regions. She argues that people fight for dignity and identified 10 aspects of dignity, including belongingness, which ties to group identity. I encourage folks to give her work a look. Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity: Its essential role in resolving conflict. Yale University Press.

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