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Second-Stage Sensei

by Dino Signore

Manager of Entrepreneurial Education

Tribal behavior: the good, the bad, and the need for balance

Leaders often misinterpret how they spend time and focus effort. During early days when you only have a handful of employees, you’re managing individuals. But when you cross over to second stage (10 to 99 employees) you need to begin managing groups. So let’s talk about groups.

First, the good news: Humans are social animals, especially when it comes to small groups.

We like belonging to groups for a number of reasons. For starters, the world has always been a pretty threatening place. Just imagine being dropped into a jungle by yourself. Consider the number of mammals, reptiles and insects that can kill you or at least do some serious harm. Even little ones. Take the golden poison dart frog, which inhabits the Amazon rainforest. These tiny creatures have venom powerful enough to kill 10 humans.

Clearly, nature can be a hostile environment, and being with other humans improves our ability to survive. This is also true in business, where groups come together to solve problems and tackle larger tasks than one individual can achieve.

 The importance of being included

 Groups also have psychological benefits. The idea of belonging to a tribe, that “these are my people,” is an appealing concept. In fact, neuroscience research shows when people are accepted into a trusted group, their brains release oxytocin, a feel-good hormone.

Yet there’s also a darker side to group behavior. The commonality that bonds you with a particular set of individuals can also cause you to reject other people who don’t share those characteristics, even though it may be on a subconscious level. (Social psychologists refer to this as in-group and out-group behavior, which can be the source of organizational conflict.)

Consider an engineering firm comprised mostly of middle-age white guys. Its CEO may try to recruit women and younger people, but if new hires feel excluded, they won’t stay long. And that’s bad news, because research shows that diversity is positively correlated to innovation.

Innovative companies need people from different races, cultures, genders, ages and backgrounds. What’s more, it’s not enough to let them join, they need to feel as though they truly belong.

Some quick ideas on how to encourage this kind of inclusiveness:

  • In your onboarding processes, introduce newcomers to everyone. Let them spend time with people like them — and also unlike them.
  • Put people on mixed teams where they share a common fate.
  • Make clothing with company logos available to everyone on your staff. This may seem silly, but it can help spark a sense of belonging and equality. (It also saves time figuring out what to wear in the morning.)

The emergence of subtribes

Another important point about group behavior: As your company grows larger, group dynamics become more complicated. The creation of different departments can result in the formation of subtribes, such as marketing versus operations. Subtribes can also result from diverse demographics, such as Millennials versus Baby Boomers, or even physical boundaries, such as employees who are located in different buildings or locations.

It’s perfectly fine to have subtribes — and pretty hard to avoid them —  but be aware that these groups can present problems and act in unexpected ways. One common way of acting out is to withhold information from other groups. That can be harmful because information flow is the life blood of a healthy company. As the tribal chief, you want to accelerate info flow and pay attention to anything that’s slowing it down.

Some quick tips for dealing with subtribes:

  • Understand who leaders are in those smaller tribes. Develop purposeful, genuine relationships — and be prepared to interact with them differently. You’re not going to interact with a group of Millennials the same ways you would with older employees.
  • Know how those groups perceive the other groups. You’re looking for problems, assumptions, anything that might be getting in the way of information flow. For example, are women being discriminated against in any way when it comes to getting information.
  • Respect comes from the top: Demonstrate respect in your treatment of others and expect the same throughout your organization.

One more hitch, although it’s important to cultivate a sense of belonging, leaders also need to nurture individualism. Too much conformity in an organization can cause people to stop thinking independently and engage in groupthink — again, bad for innovation. After all, you’re hiring people for their brain power, and you want to avoid anything that might suppress their ingenuity.

The goal is to create a company culture that brings out the best of individuals while still encouraging a sense of belonging. That’s why having a mission, vision and values are so important. You want to create an environment where employees are coming to work not just because of their desire to get a paycheck, but because they’re helping the tribe achieve a common goal and feel appreciated for their unique talents.

(Published Feb. 16, 2017)