• Joe Vandervest

Can understanding Tribes help us understand our organizations?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I recently finished reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger. It’s an easy to read, but no less mind bending book that drives one to think. Think about country, city, community, and organizations or companies. It’s a slightly different take, but no less thought provoking than the ideas introduced by Dave Logan in Tribal Leadership about 10 years ago.

Being part of a tribe, as Sebastian argues, brings all manner of benefit to members and the community as a whole. Not to belabor the point, but if there was a way a company could build an environment that was more tribal - there could be many payoffs. Most of these have to do with engagement, resilience, flexibility, and crisis response.

Tied into this was another set of readings I did of blog posts from KnowYourTeam.com that talked about remote management and leadership. The conclusion of those readings was that (no surprise) leadership matters, good leaders can be made - they don’t have to be born. We should never underestimate the power that leadership can have on an organization. Quality leadership matters.

If you assume that getting a bit more tribal - at the organization level, not the individual unit level - has benefits for everyone involved, a question soon arises: how can an organization get more “tribal” without devolving into competing factions bent on ripping the organization apart?


It all ties into another posting I read over the weekend, the source of which now eludes me, that talked about the need to build core assumptions into a corporate culture. These are assumptions about the world, business, and the people in it.

These core assumptions inform the purpose, the vision, and the “way we do things around here”. [ Here’s a wonderful little interview with Edgar Schein which may help stimulate your thinking even further. ]

From a layperson’s perspective, it sure seems that tribes and active groups of all sizes work best together when they all share similar core assumptions about the world, how it works, and the tribe’s role in that world. It starts with sharing, understanding, and finally fusing these all into a cohesive set of assumptions.

Tribes grow and take root when people have common goals, when they share common perspectives on the world, when the understand the signals and behaviors of others in the tribe. When they see a shared destiny.

Could the way to build a strong corporate culture be hashing out our shared core assumptions, agreeing on a set of values, then organizing around a central vision of what we want to do with those assumptions?

It doesn’t sound easy. It can’t be. Especially when you have a growing organization that is maturing out of startup mode. One that is no longer driven by the energy and vision of one star entrepreneurial leader. Once you reach a particular size, an organization needs MORE than just a cult of personality to grow, thrive, and expand.

Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

Tribal DNA

Shared assumptions need to become like DNA. That hard to define stuff that makes the organization or tribe, the Tribe. The DNA of every organization is there - waiting to be distilled and discovered from your culture, legends, and history.

Distillation happens slowly. Your organization’s DNA needs to be defined by all members of the organization. Hash out what it means to be part of the organization. How you approach work, business, and the world around you.

A good starting point: record and preserve your organization’s legends, stories and experiences. Your assumptions, values, and traditions lie in that history. It’s worth preserving.

Write it down, distill it, interpret your past.

Only then can you tinker with the DNA that makes up your Tribe. Only then can you help propel it to the next stage - whatever that might be.

Remember DNA is not written in stone. It can be changed. It can be influenced. You can choose to work on influencing it or you can let your environment do it all for you. If you choose the latter, don’t be surprised by what you get. The tribe you hope for, probably won’t be anything like the one you get.

(the opinions expressed here are mine, not necessarily those of my employer)