Which Tribe Are You?

By Roger Gorman, Founder & CEO at ProFinda.


Excitingly companies everywhere seem to suddenly be striving for a hyper-collaborative and hyper- connected workforce.

McKinsey claim this area of internal collaboration ‘interaction work’ is now the fastest-growing category of employment.

As more companies rush to internally coordinate better and remove silos, they are also racing to understand what optimizes this collaboration. The winners in this race will certainly enjoy unprecedented success and growth, and this new era allows us all to enjoy and benefit more in our work.

This short article focuses on the key ingredient to this collaboration opportunity – namely understanding people, and what makes us all tick.

To unlock the blueprint to achieve collaboration, we explore the psychology behind groups of people – our tribes – and the secrets that go back over 150,000 years. This article also explores the actual DNA behind nudging people. And I hope it provides a framework to both better understand a workforce and importantly, how to action its evolution.

Once upon a time, 150,000 years ago

Technology might be moving at an unprecedented rate yet we have not changed as a species for hundreds of thousands of years.

When it comes to collaboration, social and behavioral scientists argue that one of the single most important skills we possess as a species, as illustrated when we are compared to our poor hapless Neanderthal friends, is our unique ability to exchange with one another.

It’s not the collection of individual IQ points that count, but the ability to collaborate across boundaries.

This important trait of exchanging ideas, trade and support – inside and across different ‘tribes’ – is seen as one of the most important parts of our survival and how we’ve flourished. Evidence can be traced back over 150,000 years with seashells turning up in unnatural locations around Africa due to their use in trade. Matt Ridley talks about the importance of collaboration and that notion of idea exchange describing it as “where ideas have sex”. He claims this as a critical social quality for us all to progress as a species.

It’s becoming understood that neanderthal man vanished because we actually breed them out, rather than anything killed them. Rather poetically we all have about 1-4% neanderthal DNA, so they are still alive, simply ‘in us’.

But historically while neanderthal man demonstrated impressive cognitive skills, there is zero evidence they collaborated across their tribes! And one could argue it’s because of this lack of collaboration their ‘firm’ didn’t stand a change against our ‘firm’, who implicitly embrace trade, and collaboration. We value this innately.

And by working collaboratively, we have all developed within our tribes to become specialists within a greater collective. As a tribe, we support and work in the interests of one another. As a result output is greater, efficiencies higher, innovation increases, and we all thrive.

What significance does this hold for us today?

Life has been changing in a fascinating way, and now exponentially. ‘Exchange’ is speeding up and deepening in value at an unprecedented rate.

The stone axe lasted unchanged from about 1.5 millon years ago to about 0.5million years ago. The PC mouse revolution, in contrast, lasted only about ten years, and is vastly more complex in its build, supply chain, design etc.

It is also interesting to consider, that while one person could produce a stone axe and it lasted in use for 1 million years unchanged, tens of thousands of people are involved in producing a single PC mouse. The process of drilling for oil to make the plastic, the electronic teams to produce and manufacture the technology, the engineers, the distribution and sales channels etc. Each person acts as a specialist working on a smaller part for a greater shared outcome.

The distinction between the stone axe and the PC mouse illustrates how we are becoming even more specialist, and importantly, better collaborators for a greater shared outcome.

Ultimately as everything speeds up (innovation, communication, technology etc) we are also all becoming more specialist in our chosen fields. Even 30 years ago lawyers and even recruitment consults were generalists. But you are unlikely to Google and track down a single ‘generalist’ lawyer or recruitment consultant today.

And what is really interesting, coming out from this, is that as this spectrum and depth of specialism increases, we all building a greater dependency with one another to work and function together. This is incredible for innovation, but the increasing level of specialism can only flourish through better and better collaboration.

Technology and online platforms are of course increasing this acceleration. We are in the first era of exponential change.

There are a plethora of new examples of collaboration and ‘trade’. For example trading (and crowdsourcing) in knowledge and data (Wikipedia and Quora), trade in commerce (Amazon and eBay), trade in fun and games (Halo and World of War Craft) and even trade in education (TED and The BBC).

Technology is enabling us to do amazing things, far beyond our individual capabilities.

What we are also starting to see is that our shared success and progress is governed less by our individual IQ and far more by how well we can connect and collaborate. Thus ATTITUDE is our new hero character, and enters ‘stage left’. This mental quality is increasingly seen as far more important than other qualities. Thankfully!

So a profound question arises. If this ‘exchange’ trait has been so poignant to the success of our species, then surely in commercial terms, understanding and practicing this concept in the workplace, could literally transform business revenues, growth and culture.

In a recent Mckinsey Quarterly report, (April 2013) Adam Grant discusses what makes colleagues and teams successfully collaborate and drive best behaviour. The single biggest reason was not even an inclusion in their original survey. What transpired as the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness, was the amount of help that was given to each other, and the exchange that was shared. In the highest-performing teams, colleagues invested extensive time and energy in helping, coaching, teaching, and consulting with their colleagues. In contrast, the low performing teams saw colleagues exchanging very little help. The importance of helping-behaviour plays on the well- known powerful mechanic of reciprocity.

As such we start to see tribes form around people’s level of attitude and their propensity to collaborate.

What’s my tribe?

The urge to exchange and to thrive is innate within us. We are all part of a tribe, in life and at work. Gaining an understanding of one’s tribe allows us all to better understand ourselves and how to improve our circumstances. Dave Logan presents this idea within the context of 5 tribal levels in his 2009 TED talk and discusses the commercial application of this.

A tribe is typically 20-150 people. Interestingly most people can typically only think and talk to a single level above and below. Even more interestingly, the best leaders however have the ability to talk and see every level. Leaders therefore need to ‘nudge’, or according to Logan, ‘upshift’, the lower tribe levels if they are to encourage better collaboration levels.

For companies to better enable collaboration and build a sense of community the principles of the tribe model are compelling. According to Logan, a level 1 is represented by the gang and prison culture, while reaching a level 4 or 5 means achieving a more ‘enlightened’ state of mind, which is uniquely collaborative, sharing, and supportive of the collective at the highest level.

So a key question is: how do we nudge level 2’s to level 3 and level 3’s to level 4 etc?

Defining the Tribes: Around the campfire of aptitude.

In this context ‘the Tribe’ is not about the football team you support, the clothes you wear and the music you listen to. In the workplace the only tribe framework that matters is the tribe based on attitude and aptitude.

A ten-year study of over 24,000 people on this topic is published in Tribal Leadership (2008).

This work outlines the five levels, which best defines people and their workplace tribe. This framework enables us to start far better understanding and therefore support our communities.

The 5 levels:

By understand this tribe framework below helps begin a mental journey. The outcome could help turn a siloed, disenfranchised, unproductive group of workers into a thriving, engaged community of hyper-productive people.

Level 1: “Life Sucks”

The lowest tribe level is at level 1. These people can be represented by gang and prison culture. They think ‘life sucks’. And while they will shut out the world, they will form nodes of connections to other like-minded souls.

These people, gratefully, represent only 2% of our total culture, and in fact are unlikely to even be that high of a percentage in most knowledge-bank workforces.

Level 2: “MY Life Sucks”

The tribe at level 2 thinks that ‘their life sucks’. They can be deeply dysfunctional and lacking in innovation, effort and positive will.

However they are often simply victims of their environment and as such, can be aided to move up to level 3 and beyond. This group represents a large group of around 25% of a workforce and so should be of great interest for organisations to enable and support to move up the levels. As victims of their environment, it is a tantalizing prospect to help them see and participate in positive experiences, innovation, collaboration, success and progress.

Level 3: ‘I’m Great!”

Tribe level 3 covers nearly 50% of communities and the workforce. This is a group of rather self- focused individuals, competitive in nature and who for very natural reasons own the single aim: to fundamentally support themselves.

Given that this level encompasses about half of most workforces (c. 49%) it therefore presents the greatest opportunity for change. Equally as exciting is that those operating at this level do not lack drive and need only to be nudged one level to where they will think collaboratively rather than individually.

So a key mechanism to aid the shift from level 3 to 4, is helping those at level 3 see that a supportive group philosophy will enable them to in fact win and succeed even more.

Level 4: “We’re Great!”

… this is where the magic happens!

Logan’s tribe level 4 makes up around 22% of the workforce and represent those who support one another and collaborate based on united values. We see these people achieve remarkable things as they work collectively to produce far more output than as an individual. They value fun and sharing. Moving people from level 3 to 4 is a thrilling prospect since this group appreciates that the unity of values here is more impactful than their individual competence. The group ‘gels’ from a highly motivated unified sense and moves away from an approach of silo thinking and into a tribe of collaboration. People participating at a TED talk could be great examples of level 4’s as they come together to share ideas that they believe can have far-reaching impacts.

Importantly, in the workplace, level 4’s cease simply to introduce themselves to others, rather choosing to spend time introducing other people to each other, to help the wider sense. This is a subtle but pivotal shift in attitude and aptitude. This approach to thinking ‘globally’ and introducing others together, based on shared values, is termed a triadic relationship. Organisations and cultures with this approach at their heart are built by world-class leaders and stand to win very bright futures.

Level 5: “Life’s Great!”

Finally Logan’s tribe level 5, a strength of attitude shared by perhaps under 2% of a population, represents the final peak of achievement.

At this point people own the capacity of reconciliation and hold little judgment. They realise that thinking about the collective, enables far more progress and a more impactful experience for others, most importantly for the world and inadvertently themselves. This worldly view on collaboration and the complete removal of self within the equation of community, sets level 5’s apart from level 4’s.

Examples of level 5 could include Archbishop Desmond Tutu for this efforts on ‘The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa’, in 1996.

In terms of the workplace, while less culturally impactful, people like Linus Torvalds commercially helped give Linux (one of the most prominent examples of open sourcing) and Git to the World.

Ignore at your peril

So those companies who embrace a greater sense of exchange, collaboration, and therefore innovation will enjoy a more rewarding and longer journey. But what happens if you ignore it? Could the fate of Kodak, Blockbuster and EMI have been avoided? It is common knowledge they failed to innovate and listen. Did their management team miss the chance to cultivate a culture of idea exchange, bigger picture thinking? Did they fail to recognize and respond to the market’s evolution? Perhaps the management themselves were from the wrong tribe? Achieving certain qualifications and holding senior positions do not guarantee an PHD in the right attitude!

Beyond the impact to individual brands, the financial services sector meltdown in recent years has also been attributed to short term thinking and self-serving attitudes. In the 90s traders and brokers (typically forced to work at level 3) rose through the ranks by competition and achieving great profits. Leading names (citing the Times) behind the financial meltdown include Angelo Mozilo, Hank Paulson, Joe Cassano, Ian McCarthy and Chris Cox – all of whom rose the ranks to positions of incredible authority and influence.

In contrast Jeff Skoll is now a philanthropist and social entrepreneur following his vast success at eBay. He is the founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation whose mission is to drive large scale change by investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and innovators who help them solve the world’s most pressing problems.

The level 3 attitudes of the Angelo Mozilo and Hank Paulson’s of this world, are arguably how they personally achieved such commercial and monetary success, which in turn held them in reverence with their peers. But they ultimately became the custodians of financial services. Perhaps the very reason how and why they were successful is the very reason for keeping them away from owning too much influence. Great leaders it seems should not be level 3s types!

So it becomes evident that actually a blend of tribe mentality is needed throughout most firms. And while this blend is a stronger recipe for success, it becomes clear that there must be a hunger to encourage far more level 4 attitudes within more businesses – and life. And indeed that all leaders must be better examples of level 4.

The Mind in the Workplace!

It is important to appreciate that psychology plays a hugely impactful role in supporting our tribe mentality and the various ways we can be encouraged within the workplace. Examples include:

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows that humans have a number of needs they hope to fulfill within their lives.
  2. Applying fun and reward mechanics, playing on status and access (known as gamification) into the workplace can be used to promote the top three levels of the hierarchy.
  3. Scientifically, ‘dopamine’ is produced during fun and reward and thus it activates the brain’s natural reward system through the release of this chemical.
  4. The feedback loop is critical, and uses the idea that a person’s actions are motivated by the information they take in, their understanding of their behavioural choices and their consequences and relevance of these choices.
  5. Witnessing other colleagues around you achieve more, win more and become happier, plays on neuroplasticity. This is the way our mind evolves around these external experiences to enable us to mimic others’ success.

In the hope to better understand people in terms of talent and through an HR framework, it is becoming increasingly clear that whether you view people through the lens of Myers Briggs, Logan’s Tribe, Bartel’s gaming personas or the myriad of other personality assessments – the end goal for every company is the same; to find, nurture and retain the best talent.

Evidence from the past few decades has shown that collaboration can only be finally achieved and optimised by the marriage of three key ingredients: employee type and their attitude, company culture and a certain technology environment.

Collectively this will enable any community to flourish.

So finally, what tribe do you want to be part of? And most importantly, how can you help others to reach level 4 and 5?

About the author

Roger Gorman is the founder & CEO at ProFinda - connect with him at Roger[at]profinda.com, on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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