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Tribalism in organizations – From my time as a leader at an offshore R&D center

Michał Piątkowski 0

I was lucky. I was definitely lucky to join a US-based start-up in Krakow in 2001 when there was just a handful of foreign software firms here. I came in on a cloudy Monday the 10th of September 2001. And I stayed for 14 years.

If this adventure taught me something, it taught me about working in a global organization with multiple locations and with distributed development and offshore R&D. And this one was truly global. I would jump from a call with our Japanese office to a call with French pre-sales. After talking to the guys in Brazil, I would work with the team in the Krakow office before the morning comes in sunny California and we get on the “calls” with our HQ in Long Beach.


One of the takeaways for me was that if there is a single most dangerous mechanism for an organization, particularly a global one, then it is what I like to refer to as:


What is tribalism? It is an evolutionary old, psychological mechanism that tells your brain that your group is better than another group. You don’t think this is important? Well, this mechanism fires up in every situation when you have more than one group of people and there appears to be a difference in the goals/priorities/opinions between the groups. You can have a single office of a company and two teams. Guess which team you will think of as the better one? Any ideas? Well, the one you belong to.

We, humans, carry the burden of a lack of synchronization between the cultural evolution and biological evolution, hence we act based on the mechanisms created for different times, mechanisms that are historically instilled in us. Let’s call it a bug in our firmware. We tend to strongly affiliate with our group and form a negative attribution towards the members of other groups.

The famous silos in organizations directly derive from tribalism and silos amplify the symptoms of tribalism. Have you heard about an organization without silos?


The single most important thing you can do to minimize tribalism is to build


What is trust? Trust is a belief that the other party has sufficient capacity and good intentions. It is believing that a member of another group made a mistake not because he is lazy or because he is not as smart as we are, but because it is a normal thing to make a mistake and we (our group) made many similar ones in the past.


Tribalism surfaces in various situations, and one of them is when you work in a global, multinational organization. Therefore, building trust is something organization leaders should be doing on a daily basis as well as encourage their teams to do so.

Here are 5 things you, as a leader or member of an organization can do to build trust and minimize the impact of tribalism:

  • Build relations and get to know others. Make friends with people from other groups / offices / teams. Get to know them closer. Build a personal connection with some of them. Learn about their families and interests. Look for commonalities.
  • Consider differences. You are culturally different. Every group, community, country differs culturally from one another. Accept the differences and treat them as part of life. Respect differences, be curious about them, and understand them.
  • Rely on processes & tools that people are trained on. Having a common set of tools and processes makes it significantly easier to communicate, to achieve goals and to make sure the expectations are met. Be careful, though! The processes can also serve as a trust killer! It is very easy to finger-point to the other team: here is where you didn’t comply with the process. Use processes wisely, in favor of trust, not against it.
  • Be a leader. Take initiative, be the first one to contact other teams, don’t be afraid to talk about the differences in communication and perspectives between groups. And, by the way, you don’t have to be in a leadership position to act as a leader, but having a leadership position requires you to be a leader.
  • Be aware of tribalism in you. Don’t blame. Don’t judge. Don’t be a jerk. Understand that evolution made us all imperfect and it is entirely up to us whether we behave like we are being dragged by our instincts or whether we choose act mindfully.

From my experience, the effort to build trust is required both if you have just a single office and if you run various remote locations. Most organizations, if they want to do business globally, will need to set up a remote office at some point. Hence, you will never escape the dangers of tribalism. But, once you are aware of them, you can manage them and teach your teams how they can do it too.


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