Surviving Your Tribe: 3 tips for building a happier work team

People often laugh when I describe work teams as 'tribes'. Sure, we don't hunt wildebeest together or raise each other’s children. However, there are some characteristics that are useful for modern teams. These include trust and daily collaboration. It is these characteristics that often determine the strength of workplace culture and the profitability of the organisation. Dave Logan and Halee Fischer-Wright, authors of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, propose that workplace tribal groups hold more power than any individual Manager or CEO.

Sadly, in unhealthy organisations, tribes form to help us achieve a basic need - survival. Don't feel valued by your boss? Go hang out with those who feel the same way. In a workplace full of gossip and dog-eat-dog? Never speak up in team meetings, even if you have a great idea. Psychological 'survival' matters in modern workplaces. We need to feel emotionally and mentally safe. If this need is not attended to, productivity decreases and teams become fragmented micro-tribes. By this stage, people are in it for themselves and extremely averse to collaboration. No amount of 'restructuring' will fix the problem.

So how do we rebuild? Here’s our top three suggestions for developing a ‘trust-based tribe’.

1.     See each other as real human beings (*gasp*). You may not love Doug in Accounts but if you knew Doug was caring for his elderly mum and liked indoor soccer, could you see him a little differently? Think about creating situations where personal stories can be shared and the team can bond (and no, this is not the same as “trust exercises” where you fall and someone catches you … hopefully). What do people care about? Favourite food, best holiday, wishes for their kids. These are the moments in which we find common ground and we become human.

2.     Get clear on your team's purpose and values. Why the heck are we all here (cos it ain't Margaret's cookies)? What difference do we make? What are our unifying values? How do they shape our behaviour and attitudes towards each other? This exercise has the power to unify teams and quite frankly, help others realise they may be suited to another tribe.

3.     Learn to appreciate the differences. It’s easy to say “we’re all different” but when the rubber hits the road and a deadline is looming, those differences can lead to tension, misunderstanding and conflict. Appreciating the differences is about identifying what differences exist; introversion versus extroversion, detailed people versus big picture people. Consider using basic psychometric profiling to capture those differences on paper and use it to help team members develop communication flexibility and overcome differences. 

Want more information and guidance for your own team? Email me at