Tribal Conflict Is Everywhere in Your Company Culture—Here’s What Leaders Need to Do


Human beings are Jekyll-and-Hyde creatures. More than any other animal, we excel at collaboration. We make friends, we form teams, we launch start-up businesses, we found countries. Yet social life is also full of conflict with our fellow homo sapiens. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we kill. What’s wrong with us?

Well, we’re only human. Since tribal characteristics lie deep in our DNA, we constantly ride herd on two conflicting impulses: one pushing us toward collaboration within groups, the other pulling us toward competition between groups. This push-pull phenomenon can wreak havoc in your workplace.

Just take a look at what happened to Procter & Gamble employees after the company’s merger with Gillette, a $57 billion deal that the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffet predicted would “create the greatest consumer products company in the world.” However, it took a lot longer to reach that goal than investors had hoped, with P&G’s stock price lagging behind its closest competitors and the new Gillette business proving a burdensome drag on the company’s top line.

Was it a result of do-or-die decisions about major organizational and competitive issues? Maybe. But it also stemmed from some pretty small cultural differences. For example, while P&G tribes had developed the habit of communicating via written memos, the Gillette tribes preferred PowerPoint presentations. Gillette employees viewed their P&G counterparts as old-fashioned sticks-in-the-mud who adhered to a needlessly slow and bureaucratic decision-making process. The Gillette tribe also disliked the P&G tribe’s penchant for acronyms. To them, such expressions as CIB (Consumer is boss) hampered rather than streamlined conversations.

Voila! Competition eroded cooperation to the point that the whole organization’s overall performance suffered. To put it another way, people clung to the values of their little tribes at the expense of the needs of the newly formed bigger tribe. In any organization, as happened in this shaky merger, the natural preference for your own little tribe’s ways can undermine the need to work across group boundaries.

Getting organizational tribes to work together and build a common culture requires a clear understanding of the fundamental tension between collaboration and competition. Every culture-builder faces the same challenge: building a common culture to fight against the persistent tendency of people to create their own little tribes. Even a couple of people who meet daily on Zoom can form a tight-knit tribe of two. Members of a given tribe tend to view others in different parts of their organization as outsiders. When this gets out of hand, the sense of a shared culture begins to disappear. Groups can become so isolated from one another that they threaten the culture even more than an outside force. Given the fact that studies suggest less than a third of executives feel they understand their own culture, the problem may seem insurmountable.

Peeking behind the Org Chart 

If you’re a leader under constant pressure to deliver the results an organization needs, you may spend a great deal of time and energy creating high-level plans that look brilliant on paper. “Here, Smith sits in this box,” you say to yourself. “Jones sits in this one, and Martinez sits in this other one. This straight line here shows the chain of command.” But if you’re thinking this way, you are not thinking carefully enough about the tension between tribal collaboration and competition. To grasp that natural tension, you need to peek behind the org chart.

In almost every organization we have studied over the past 30 years, a cultural chasm separates senior management from the divisions, units, and teams below the top of the org chart. Whether large or small, these gaps invariably stem from the disparity between the cultural statements issued from C-suites and the words and phrases employees use to describe their day-to-day experiences at work. The good news is that despite the fact that the innate tension between collaboration and competition will never disappear, you can take steps to ameliorate it.

It’s not as hard as you might think.  First, forget about the abstractions that look good on paper, then schedule a meeting where people describe the reality of their jobs.  Listen carefully and take notes.  Once you have collected enough stories about how work actually gets done—or doesn’t—you can start building a unified tribe of tribes.  It’s all about addressing the conflicts that inevitably flare up between functions and groups with their own unique work cultures.  Give it try.  It might be as simple as deciding to use memos instead of PowerPoints.

Written by Derek Newberry.

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