Workplace cliques have been around since the beginning of the organization. When someone is new to the organization, their natural inclination is to assimilate. This is most often done with those that are physically closest to them: their work team and their colleagues that they interact with daily. This early adoption of a team quickly shifts to role identity. Marketing sticks with marketing, logistics stay amongst themselves. The only commonly held belief within the organization is that everyone hates HR and IT. It is something that different work groups can bond over.
I and many others refer to this phenomenon as tribalism. Evolution ingrained the trait of tribalism in all of us. A behavior driven out of natural instincts to stay near your own tribe for safety purposes. While we’ve spent centuries segregating based on skin color, ethnicity, race, and language, we’ve come to realize the inherent damage that comes from that path of thinking. So, we fight the pull of tribalism based on outdated notions, and instead, we shift what our new tribalism looks like. In some cases, it is based on our beliefs, religions, or political party affiliation. In the office, it centers around people outside of your sphere of interactions.
This derivation comes from the need for safety. When humans were hunters and gatherers, people from opposing tribes were unknowns; they were potential threats. This same behavior happens in an office. On arrival, a brand-new employee looks for safety, and the first people to offer it are their new departmental coworkers.
This bonding of people is always a moving target. It is based on who you are around and the environment you are in. If you are in Europe on a business trip and randomly meet another American there, an instant tribal bond develops. The same can be experienced if you’re at a conference and run into someone that attended the same college as you—an instant tribal bond based on affiliation. This phenomenon works on any scale.
When these affiliations stretch into the workforce, trouble ensues. It opens the door to blaming people and groups based on their tribal identity. The organization can toil for weeks shifting blame instead of moving forward towards a solution.
The dislike or hate against other tribes says much about your insecurities. It covers up your weaknesses. Tribalism shifts accountability. Lastly, it adds to your fears of being left out of your own tribe.
Everyone feels the impact in the office. The segregation of work teams mirrors the segregation of society. While tribalism gives excuses when trying to avoid accountability, it simply keeps the organization from moving forward.
On a micro-level, an observer can view how this tribalism could derail a company. For example, during meetings, how often is one group blamed while proclaiming their side as a victim? It is not a court of law; the adversarial nature provides little value. This can also be observed during brainstorming or strategic planning sessions where some tribes are left out of the planning process intentionally, or it turns into a resource negotiation to gather the most for their side.
There is no easy resolution to workplace tribalism. Part of the solution, however, is the understanding that you’re fighting human nature. Knowing this, you can better position yourself by creating conditions that emphasize the organization over individual work teams.
Progress will be slow, and it will be hard to see where you’ve made an impact. An early sign will be when you quit hearing people complain about other departments; blaming others will disappear. Lastly, you will notice that productivity will go up along with matching revenue growth.
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