Humans are a tribal species. We evolved in small bands of hunters and gatherers. Close collaboration within your group and scepticism towards any outsiders was a precondition for survival. Later, humans organized in larger groups called tribes, which had more complex social structures. This was the dominant organizational pattern for most of human existence. Tribalism brought some of humanity’s most positive traits, such as collaboration, community and altruism, but also some of its most despicable ones like nationalism, intolerance and bigotry.
Once you pay attention, you can still see tribal behavior everywhere. We think we’re incredibly sophisticated now, flying to Mars and building machines with artificial intelligence. We organize in huge nation states and global corporations. But under the hood, there are still the old tribal instincts that drive most of human behavior. In some places this is very obvious — sports and politics for instance.
In the world of business, tribalism is more subtle and multi-faceted. That’s exactly why it’s so important to understand.
Knowing your tribe(s) and understanding how to leverage this can be one of the most empowering tools for choosing, shaping and developing any career.
Business tribes break down into three layers:
- People with similar backgrounds
There’s of course a lot of overlap between these three, but let’s look at them separately.
People with similar backgrounds
It’s of course natural to feel connected to people who are like you. Even if we don’t like to admit it, it’s simply easier to relate to somebody who has the same nationality, language, gender, educational background, socioeconomic status, and so on.
Fortunately, the world of business has become a lot more diverse and is hopefully continuing to develop into that direction. Many professions that were once completely dominated by middle-aged white males from Western countries educated at top universities are now quite a bit more interesting in terms of the mix of professionals they attract and promote. Obviously there is still a huge amount to do, but things are getting better, for everybody’s benefit.
And yet, there is something to be said for being in touch with people who have a similar background. Alumni networks for example are very powerful. If any alumni of the two universities I went or of any company I used to work for to contacts me, they immediately have my attention. That’s an often neglected type of connection. In a similar way, women in some industries have started to network much more systematically between themselves to counter the incumbent power of “old boys’ networks”. Is that perfectly inclusive and open? No. Is it effective? Yes.
Tapping into the tribe of people you have a lot in common with is a legitimate strategy to advance in business. However, it’s of course nowhere close to being sufficient. You will often find that the most successful people are those who easily cross boundaries between tribes.
Companies (particularly startups)
Young founders and managers often receive the advice to not think of their company as a “family”, but rather as a “sports team”. That’s indeed a better metaphor. You can’t get fired from a family, but obviously a sports team will only let you stay on if you perform.
But a tribe is an even better metaphor in some ways, particularly for startups. Here’s why: Sports teams operate in a relatively predictable, strictly rule-based environment. The mechanics of the game are clear, the scores are transparent, the process of winning is well understood. Stars get rewarded financially in a very predictable way.
Startups on the other hand are like stone-age tribes: They operate in the wilderness. There are no clear rules. You need to bring your A game and creativity every day to even just survive, let alone thrive. You need to collaborate very closely with your tribe, and there are no stars. The social dynamics are complicated. And sometimes uncontrollable external factors — how about an ice age? Or its business equivalent, the recession? — make your life miserable through not fault of your own.
In terms of their social archetypes, startups typically start out as a large family — when your company has 10-30 people, the structures are simple and it’s clear who mom and dad are. Then they develop into tribes. That happens once you hit about 50 people. Things get messy because all social structures have to reconfigure. You suddenly have a much more complex social hierarchy, more ambition and complicated forms of interaction. A bit later in its growth process, the startup turns into something more similar to a village, then into a city, then into a nation state that probably has warring tribes within it. This process is very well described in the book “Blitzscaling” by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh.
Understanding where your company stands in this process and what its tribal dynamics are — and your position in it — is essential for success in the startup world (and beyond).
In my own career, I’ve had the privilege of working with a substantial number of different professions, in particular: Software engineers, designers, business consultants, tech entrepreneurs, corporate executives, professors, data scientists, product managers, lawyers, ad agency people (both on the business and creative side), VCs, bankers, government employees, journalists, military people.
Some of these groups were my employees, some were my bosses, some board members or investors, some my customers and some were peers which whom I closely collaborated.
They were also very, very different. I met a lot of smart, ambitious and impressive people in each of these tribes. But most had a very strong sense of professional identity and sometimes a substantial “us vs. them” mentality.
A few things I observed about these tribes:
- Most tribes — and here’s where our stone-age heritage comes in — think highly of themselves but can be a bit dismissive of other tribes. They often have not the slightest clue what these other tribes do and why their work might be challenging, but they assume it must be easy, not nearly as difficult as their own work.
- Most people spend their entire career as part of such a professional tribe. That’s not surprising, but it can limit their understanding of other tribes severely — and, even more importantly, harm their effectiveness at collaborating with members of other tribes.
- Tribes have rituals, orthodoxies and specific ways of communicating. They wear uniforms, even (or maybe particularly) if they think of themselves as being unconventional. Try going to a meeting with designers carrying a Windows laptop. They will never think of you as being one of their own. It’s simply a uniform violation. Similarly, software engineers react almost allergically to suits. That’s strange for a profession that prides itself on being all about substance over form.
- People of one tribe have a high affinity to tribes that are similar. For instance, it’s well documented that in my chosen most recent profession as a venture capitalist people tend to prefer investing into founders that are similar to VCs: Articulate, analytical, familiar with the latest buzzwords, good at creating compelling narratives, educated at a top university, good with numbers. That’s why former consultants are often assumed to be “strong founders” by VCs, despite there being no evidence for that to be true. Founders who are different often struggle to raise funding despite maybe having more substance.
- Crossing boundaries into another tribe, i.e. changing careers, is very challenging. It’s not just about acquiring the necessary skills, it’s all the subtle social and communicative aspects, about showing the right kind of pedigree (“Stallgeruch” as it’s called in German) that make it hard. In my MIT mid-career study program they always told us “You can’t run from your résumé”. And that’s very true. Huge jumps to an entirely different profession rarely succeed, and I have seen many cases of where people ended up back at their home tribe after a few years.
What to do about it?
So what to do about all of this? First of all, it’s important to understand which tribe(s) you are a member of. Sometimes it’s obvious, but many people belong to multiple tribes. I would describe myself as being a tech entrepreneur, with a side membership in the VC tribe and a friendly affiliation with data scientists and software engineers. Most people are probably a bit like that.
There are of course more granular sub-tribes, differentiated for example by age or geography. A Wall Street trader in their 60s doesn’t have all that much in common with an Indian private banker in their 20s, for example, even though they are part of the same professional group. There are also sub-tribes differentiated by skill domains. Front-end software engineers are quite different from backend engineers, for example.
Here are a few things about tribes that can benefit your professional life:
- Become aware of your tribe’s biases. As mentioned, tribes tend to think highly of themselves and have all kind of biases about others. It’s easy and feels comfortable to stick with these biases, because your tribemates have them too. Expressing them is a form of signalling that you belong. But needless to say, biases will hold you back because most great work is done in collaboration beyond your tribal borders. For example, most of the really great tech entrepreneurs — people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk — would very much look out of place at a VC conference. But the VCs who invested in them anyway made history in their tribe. And yet, most struggle to think that way.
- Really understand how to work with other tribes. Developing curiosity and empathy for other tribes is a professional superpower. It’s not necessary or possible to understand all the nuances of a profession that isn’t yours. But at least acquiring some knowledge goes a long way. For example, if you are business-oriented startup founder and you can at least code a little bit or have played for a few weekends with UI design tools, your understanding of your colleagues’ challenges will be fundamentally different.
- Be creative beyond your tribe’s orthodoxies. Every tribe has its unquestioned orthodoxies that enable it to be productive, but also limits creativity. For example, product managers think in terms of sprints, user stories, user testing, etc. and often have a hard time coming up with product ideas that are more speculative. Data scientists are trained to optimize for an easily observable single variable and struggle with real-world problems that might be more complex and noisy. Once you recognize your own orthodoxies and start going beyond them — for example by adopting methods you learned from other tribes — you can be a real outlier within your tribe.
- Understand if you’re in the right tribe. Being part of the wrong tribe is a very important reason for professional unhappiness. We all are made to decide which professional route we want to take in our late teen years, which is of course ridiculously early. It’s not surprising therefore that a lot of people discover that their profession is not right for them. Leaving your tribe and joining another one is incredibly hard, beyond the factors mentioned above. As a species, we are hard-wired not to do that, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for your career and happiness.