Tribes in companies decide whether work gets done, their influence is greater than that of teams, entire companies even CEOs. In companies, tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out.  They determine how much work gets done and to what quality.

In my experience of working with teams in organisations, acknowledging and understanding that tribes exist is critical to understanding the behaviour and culture of teams and then how organisations can change behaviours and cultures that are not conducive to high performing teams. Often it is the tribal leader that has shaped the culture of the tribe, you can’t always change the leader therefore need to develop the self-awareness in the leader to recognise that they are influencing the tribe and encourage them to change their leadership styles and approach to leading the tribe. Here there is a risk of being ‘pushed out’ by the tribe as now no longer being ‘one of them’, so leaders need the skills and EQ to effectively lead the team to a better place.

Why Should Executives Care About Tribes?

Because the research has found extraordinary jumps in productivity and profitability as tribes progress. They have also discovered new ways to understand and influence team behaviour. A company is only as strong as the culture of its tribe.

What Do We Mean About a “Tribe”?

According to Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright (1), a tribe is usually composed of 20 to 150 people, that forms naturally. From the ice age on, forming a tribe was a way to improve our odds for survival. As we’ve gotten more sophisticated, it’s become a way to increase our odds of success – a lot of positive outcomes are associated with tribes.

What Makes the Difference in the Performance of a Team?

Tribal leaders. Tribal leaders focus their effort on building the tribe. If they are successful, the tribe recognises them as leaders, giving them top effort, cult like loyalty and a track record of success. They are talent magnets. Designating someone as the leader or head of an organisation doesn’t mean that he or she is the tribal leader. Most of the time, tribal leaders are the silent face behind the leadership. A company can change leadership, but if the new leader isn’t the tribal leader, the changes won’t have an impact on the tribe.

Tribal leadership focuses on language and behaviour within a culture. Tribal leaders do these things:

  1. Listen for which cultures exist in their tribes
  2. Upgrade those tribes using specific leverage points
  3. Tribal Leaders’ move themselves forward so that their “centre of gravity” is at least Stage Four
  4. They build a network around them so that they are stable at Stage Four

It’s usually obvious who is not the leader, but it’s often harder to figure out who is the leader. The leader is the person who brings the tribe together and gives it a sense of its own identity. The tribe recognises that person as the leader.

How Can You Identify the Tribal Leader?

However, a note of caution here, for teams to be successful, organisations need tribal leaders that display the behaviours of a Stage 4/5 tribe, not ones that are fixed at Stage 2 or 3 (see figure below).

What Are The Stages in Employee Tribes?


5 stages of tribal culture

Most corporate tribes are mostly at Stage three or below.

Where’s yours?

How Do You Move a Tribe From Stage to Stage?

We need to ‘unstick’ people, so they can move to the next stage. You have to talk a language they can understand — at most, one stage above where the group is.

Say you’re working with a group at Stage Two. First, find the people who want things to be different — the ones who are tired of the griping. Then talk Stage Three language to them individually. Say things like, “I think you have real potential to lead. I think that you could go a long way toward improving things here.” If you’ve chosen the right person, then eventually she’ll look at her colleagues and say, “You’re right — I’m great, and this situation sucks.” You’ve moved that person to Stage Three.

To move to Stage Four, a tribe needs a sense of shared values. This is when strengths can become really powerful. When individual tribe members embrace their strengths, then they’re able to develop plans and strategies that are impossible to attain without leveraging a shared sense of vision and values and strengths.To move from Stage Three to Stage Four, first figure out what people value individually by asking them a series of open-ended questions, then start constructing multiperson initiatives. Make it impossible for people to succeed without partnering with someone else. One of the characteristics of Stage Three is two-person relationships. A person at Stage Three wants to control other people, but he doesn’t want those people comparing notes. So, he tries to keep them apart.

Are There Differences in Productivity From Stage to Stage?

Big ones. Stage Five outperforms four, which outperforms three, etc. We often find groups at Stage Four reporting a three thousand percent increase in profitability over groups at Stage Three.

Why Is Stage Five the Future of Businesses?

Groups at Stage Five can achieve things that are inconceivable for groups simply aiming to outperform the competition. They can move into a realm of pure creativity, pure leadership, pure innovation. They say, “Let’s do it because it’s possible and we think it will change the world.” The profitability, the build-out that comes from Stage Five often continues for decades. They are the future of business.

What Are The Benefits of Stage 4/5 Cultures?

  • People collaborate
  • Fear and stress go down as the “interpersonal friction” of working together decreases
  • The entire tribe shifts from resisting leadership to seeking it out
  • People seek employment in the company and stay, taking the company a long way toward winning the war for talent
  • People’s engagement in work increases
  • Organisational learning becomes effortless, with the tribe actively teaching its members the latest thinking and practices
  • People’s overall health statistics improve
  • Setting and implementing a successful competitive strategy becomes easy as people’s aspirations, knowledge of the market, and creativity are unlocked and shared
  • People report feeling more alive and having more fun.

What Action an Leaders Take To Move a Tribe Through The Stages?

  1. Take an interest in your staff, this isn’t just about remembering birthdays, but engaging with staff, making them feel valued.
  2. Work with individuals on a one-to-one basis, seek out their potential, build trust, become their mentor.
  3. Encourage those at Stage Three that winning on a personal basis is self-defeating. Aim for a win-win outcome
  4. Communicate with transparency, provide more information and more often.
  5. Involve the team in problem solving, ask the questions: “what is working well?” “what is not working so well?” “what can the team do to make the things that are not working well, work?”

You will be rewarded with loyalty, hard work, innovation and collaboration. The tribe gets work of a higher quality done in less time.

  1. Dave Logan, Ph.D.; John King; and Halee Fischer-Wright, M.D. Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization.

Ref: The Business Journal May 2008