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Corporate Tribalism

Corporate Tribalism

The tribalism that we see racking Kenya—which was a stable, prosperous country two weeks ago, with a thriving tourism industry—we’ve seen in Rwanda, Iraq, Pakistan, Spain, the Balkans, and elsewhere, all over the world. This is what happens when ethnic allegiance is a stronger claim on one’s loyalty than national allegiance. It’s not hard to understand when many post-colonial geopolitical borders were arbitrarily drawn.

One of the strangest, most disingenuous presentations I’ve ever seen was when I was a keynoter at a national speakers’ convention in England where a speaker from Africa, complete with mood lighting and music, tried to convince the audience that we are better off with the values of tribes.

Say, what?

As consultants, we have to identify and eliminate the “tribalism” of our clients. Pogo would have made a great consultant, because many clients are their own worst enemies. But it takes a learned outsider to point that out. (Thank goodness!)

Here are some anti-tribalism techniques:

• Don’t allow people to talk about “accounting” or “sales” or “engineering.” Force them to use names, not labels. WHO in engineering is ignoring you? Surely the entire department isn’t conspiring against you, right?
• Senior managers have to accept their corporate accountability above any “silo” accountability. You can’t have a department getting a half-day off on the eve of a holiday while a department across the hall, watching them leave, is required to work a full day.
• Create and perpetuate cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams.
• Tell senior people to set the tone. Internecine bickering in pubic by executives immediately calcifies the tribalism. (I know of a company where the CEO and COO argued, with personal accusations, in front of the senior managers assembled.)
• Create incentive systems where everyone has a chance to win, not where I can only win if you lose. You don’t want “zero-sum” dynamics within the compensation system.
• Regularly and firmly rotate people among difference divisions. That should be a requirement for promotion in any case. NEVER let anyone make a career of human resources or any other staff position.
• Create meeting space, cafeteria space, and other public areas where people are forced to mix and mingle and there are no “elite” differentiators. Close the executive dining rooms.

Tribalism is the worst kind of corporate divisiveness. Most clients will readily agree to ending it, but they are unable to identify it. If your client succumbs to it, you can’t blame colonialism, but you can blame lousy leadership and shallow consulting.

© Alan Weiss 2008. All rights reserved.

Written by

Alan Weiss is a consultant, speaker, and author of over 60 books. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients from over 500 leading organizations around the world.

Comments: 5

  • Dapreye John Wesey

    January 3, 2008

    Dear Alan, I cannot but agree with you more. lousy leadership and shallow consulting makes tribalism to thrive. Another issue is religion. This has crippled more african countries (may be middle east) as much as tribalism. As i speak, these two monsters are killing my country Nigeria (President is from the Moslem-North of Nigeria). In a plural society as ours, these monsters are destroying great value.

    I hope one day these freaks will come back to life!

  • Art Petty

    January 3, 2008


    Thanks much for your posting on Corporate Tribalism. It resonated with me on multiple levels. The area that I have seen this ugly tendency most often is with the sales versus marketing mentality that pervades so many organizations. Your posting prompted me to write on my thoughts on tribalism in the S+M environment at http://www.artpettyonmanagement.typepad.com/ and build on your anti-tribalism suggestions. One piece of advice to my blog readers was to print out your suggestions and refer to them frequently.

    Thanks for the inspiration and the on-going great content! -Art

  • Art Petty

    January 3, 2008

    With apologies and a red face, I managed to mistype my own blog address in the comment above. Only one “Y” in the address. -Art

  • Richard Martin

    January 4, 2008

    I think the military has a lot to teach the corporate world about how to break down internal barriers to cooperation and tribalism. That is the basic meaning of all arms cooperation, but there are other practices which create an attitude of belonging and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team and the organization.

    Richard Martin

  • Chad Barr - Alan's Blog Implementer & Moderator

    January 4, 2008

    Not to fret, link is all fixed.
    Take are Art.

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