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The rules of the tribe

In the last week I’ve learned more about status and self-organisation in tribes than in all the time that I’ve spent reading about the subject. This is because I’ve been carefully observing in real life what happens when you put a bunch of people together who define themselves as a tribe, interacting in a given territory with the aim of performing certain tasks in a limited amount of time.

Well, that’s me and part of my family going on holiday for a week in a countryside house in a small village in the south of Spain.

And why do I think my family is a tribe? Because that’s how they define themselves. My opinion doesn’t count in this matter.

Let me tell you that not all groups are tribes, or act as tribes. Only those whose sense of belonging to one another is so strong that they establish strict rules to decide who becomes part of the group can be considered a tribe.

Culture makes a tribe, and a family can make a tribe. One of the most characteristic elements of a tribe is that the group is more important than the individual.

Let’s say you want to go to the beach and your tribe needs to prepare sandwiches for ten people plus two kids from the neighbouring house who’ve decided to join you at the last minute.

No matter how experienced you are in the art of making sandwiches and organising a kitchen, no matter if you’re a chef, the one who gets into the kitchen and organises what needs to be done is the chief of the tribe. And that’s it.

Your individual experience is irrelevant unless the chief decides that you’re in charge of making the sandwiches. Why? Because the tribe protects itself first, not the egos of its individual members.

The chief organises how the sandwiches are made according to certain family rules and internal agreements that you’re not even aware of. But let me tell you something – being efficient is not one of them.

When my family comes together for more than a day, the rules of the tribe apply. Who drives, who cooks, who puts the children to bed, who decides what to eat is organised by a complex set of rules designed for the preservation of our family. For example, who cooks depends on how tense the environment is. If the chief or chiefs decide at the last minute that individual X has to get out of the kitchen in favour of Z, that applies. What is the logic? Self-preservation of the family tribe, in the form of avoiding a massive argument.

That might explain why even when I wake up at 8 in the morning with a great plan to get to the beach at 11 with ten adults and whoever wants to joins us at the last minute, my plan will be ignored and once again we’ll arrive sweating at the beach at 1 pm, having followed a chaotic sequence of events whose logic absolutely eludes me.

In this frenetic activity, inefficient organisation, multiple arguments and unexpected laughs in the middle of surreal situations such as travelling 500 km by car with two tortoises, a cat and two kids, my tribe is protecting who we are as a family with a complex set of rules aiming to make us feel that we want to do this again next year – something that most days looks like an impossible mission.

Now, have a look at your team, your company, your business.

When are you behaving tribally? When are you protecting your group in opposition to the change that is needed at this moment? When is your team acting with a self-preservation logic and following a narrative that is not serving you? When are you so efficient and focused on individual performance that the sense of group and belonging disappears?

The good or the bad news, depending on where you’re sitting at any moment, is that the tribe can’t be ignored.

I know I might regret saying this, but I love having tribal experiences: it’s in our genes.

The question is how to balance the collective and the individual in the process.

Any organisation and group has to come to terms with tribal and individual dynamics. Knowing this might explain why an organisation aiming for performance and efficiency might suffer from poor group interaction, and one driven by collective dynamics that resemble tribe behaviour might suffer from inefficiency.

How to form a group that takes into account the individual while remaining flexible enough to become the tribe at certain moments is a lesson that all of us need to learn if we want to bring change.


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