Workplace Tribes – The Secret Sauce to Business Success

The word “networking” carries with it the connotation of “icky” because networking is associated with transactional interactions. This means networking tends to be less about building a community of individuals with shared aspirations, and more a means of meeting people with the explicit purpose of getting something out of them. Networking is out. Building solid relationships that matter is in.

Networks are typically artificial; they rarely form organically. They are created and then governed in a top-down hierarchical fashion. Policies and regulations are decreed from on high with little or no input from the majority of the people who make up the network. Networks not only breed passivity, but also encourage consumption. They are all about what you can get, rather than what you can give. When it comes to networks, the bigger the better. Oftentimes, you can buy your way into a network and, because you’re paying for the service, you don’t feel obligated to offer any other form of contribution. The network doesn’t ask for anything either – it’s a business transaction. When you join a gym, for instance, once you pay your monthly fee, your part of the deal is done – nothing else is expected of you. In a network, the members provide the money and the network provides the experience. You are wholly a consumer, not a creator.

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
― Sebastian Junger

Homecoming and Belonging

By contrast, in communities you get and you give. You can take from the collective, but you are required to add to it too – there’s a sense of duty and obligation for equal reciprocity. Communities are organic and autonomous. They’re made up of a collection of real people who are bound together by shared values. When facing a problem, individuals within a community band together to come up with a solution that will work for them. In a community, the group is small enough that people know who is and who is not being taken care of, and who is and who is not stepping in to help. If you don’t pull your weight and you’re perfectly capable of doing so, you face social repercussions. Communities have inherent limits on size.

Unlike networks, if communities continue growing, they die out. According to Dunbar’s Number, most humans cannot maintain more than around 150 meaningful relationships. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherer societies hover around 150 members before they split. In Roman times, the centurion (Roman Military Officer) commanded a century (100) of legionaries. In Western military history, the size of a military company (the smallest autonomous and fully functioning unit) has been around 150 members. When a community gets too big, people get overlooked. And because members no longer face the social scrutiny of their peers, they can opt out of contributing without consequence. Once that level of disengagement happens, community life slowly begins to crumble.

“Tribes are not to be trifled with. Your ability to thrive depends on the tribe.”
― Scott Perry

Cultural Cognition

Since the beginning of human consciousness, communities have been a part of our lives. In our deepest human desires, we crave togetherness and connectivity. In our myths of lost kingdoms and the stories of rebels and wars between armies, we all live with an unconscious sense of tribes and societies. We are programmed to depend on the tribe for our safety and well-being. When predators attack, as a group we have a shot. Alone, we’re toast. When our tribe is doing well (economically, militarily, public health, or whatever) our individual chances go up. When it’s doing poorly, our chances go down. So it feels good to belong to a winning tribe, and not so good – threatening, in fact – to belong to a group that’s losing.

Consider all the ways we support the tribe. We subconsciously choose our views on a large number of issues so they match the views of the groups we most strongly identify with. This theory is called Cultural Cognition. We vote for our tribe (political party). We fight to the death for our tribe in everything from gang wars to wars between nations (tribes). Sports are simply less violent surrogates of the same human need, to belong to a tribe that’s doing well because as the tribe’s chances go, so go yours. Think about the trappings of sports; the teams are your surrogate warriors, wearing tribal uniforms, the battle grounds (stadium) decorated with tribal flags (banners) and tribal emblems (often fierce animals or warrior figures), the fans painting their faces in tribal/team colours and wearing tribal/team clothing, chanting tribal chants (team songs), fighting long-standing tribal rivalries.

“Your career success in the workplace of today–independent of technical expertise–depends on the quality of your people skills.”
― Max Messmer

That "Secret Sauce"

Businesses that focus on communities can thrive beyond their imaginations. Consider workplace relationships: From your team’s perspective, in any given week they may spend more time with their co-workers than with their loved ones. Conversely, from a manager’s perspective, employee engagement impacts a wide set of business metrics, including the bottom line. These two perspectives on co-worker connections can meet in the middle when every employee in your company feels like a member of the family, community or tribe. The family metaphor, of course, has its limitations. There have been plenty of explanations as to why normal dysfunctional family mentality does not work in the workplace. Entrepreneurs start both businesses and cultures. Founders set the goals and determine the values necessary to help the company achieve its mission. The company then gets distinguished by these core beliefs, values, and attitudes, that all help guide its practices. This is under the founders’ control, hence founders can (and need) to shape their company culture, to build a great tribe of people who believe in the mission.

“In modern society we often try to separate our personal and professional life.

But this separation needs to be erased. People work better when they are accepted

for who they are, living as a whole human being.”

― Abhijit Naskar

Building A Better Workplace

Employees and businesses thrive in a healthy work environment. For managers, there’s a clear business incentive to invest in a positive work environment where employees are connected to one another. Workplace engagement is supported by employees who feel connected and believe in the company’s vision. When an employee has a personal connection to co-workers and various levels of management, workplace behaviour changes. Teamwork and collaboration thrive, and productivity increases. The tenor and progress of the workplace improves.

This isn’t to say that disagreements won’t happen. When there is a framework of strong connection already in place, it is easier to hash things out rather than devolving into microaggressions that grow workplace discontent. Three tenets for creating a better workplace with a tribe-like feeling include a strong company culture, feelings of being valued and rewarded, and conscious leadership. When these things are in place, they feed into each other to create the upward momentum that fuels growth – your very own high vibe tribe.

“Employees are people who live in communities. Let’s stop pretending workplaces are separate from community, places where robots go to die.”
― Diane Kalen-Sukra

Impacts of Good Work Relationships

The strongest workplaces have bonds between workplace friends, different departments and different levels of management. It may not seem obvious at first, but this starts with workplace friendships. A survey by Workforce magazine found that, among workers who had six to 25 workplace friends, about two-thirds were deeply connected to the company, and 70% would reject another job opportunity. Both loyalty and connection decrease as the number of friends decreases. This demonstrates a magnetic company culture where employees want to stay because they feel they are part of the tribe.

Work relationships also have a demonstrative impact on business metrics. A Gallup poll showed that companies with a culture of high engagement have higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents and better customer engagement. This means a tribe vibe is great for the bottom line. Companies that score in the top quartile of engagement are 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. That’s a significant amount of money on the table that can be harnessed by the internal relationships among co-workers. 

Being part of a high-performing team – or one that does not perform well – can determine the success of a project. So, what does it take to create a high-performing team? The answer is leadership.

Behaviours of a Low-Performing Team

  • Mismatched skills, abilities, resources
  • Cynicism and Gossip
  • Groupthink
  • Decision-making by a debate (the loudest voice/squeakiest wheel)
  • Using the flywheel (minimal effort)
  • Misaligned goals and priorities
  • No consequences for poor performance
  • Inadequate conflict resolution
  • Lots of ego and defensiveness
  • Team building, if any, serves as a fun, one-time event

Behaviours of a High-Performing Team

  • Complementary skills
  • Talented, respected teammates
  • Assumption of good intent
  • Conflict resolution that fits the situation
  • Aligned visions
  • Explicit responsibilities, and also okay to colour outside the lines
  • Accountability
  • Skilled and frequent debriefs that focus on process as well as content
  • Views team building as a process, not a one-time event

For the best teams, it’s easy (and a little lazy)  to say “they simply have the opposite behaviours of bad teams.” But success requires more than that. The best high-performing teams are more like tribes. They have a model of caring about their teammates’ results and often use shared leadership. Shared leadership isn’t simply a model of who facilitates the meetings, but rather a culture where everyone on the team cares about each other’s success in a way that prompts them to lead whenever and however they can.

“Leaders lead when they take positions, when they connect with their tribes, and when they help the tribe connect to itself.”
― Seth Godin

5 Stages of Workplace Tribes

The next time you’re around a group of coworkers, listen closely to the language they use. If you hear things like “This sucks,” or “I think you have leadership potential,” or “This will change the world” over and over, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the state of that tribe. Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organisation outlines a 10-year study involving more than 24,000 people in two dozen companies. Authors Dave Logan and John King argue that workgroups are more tribal than departmental, that tribes are ultimately more powerful than companies or executives, and that there are five stages of tribal development.

A tribe is usually composed of 20 to 150 people, but what makes it a tribe is that it forms naturally. Tribes form all the time. The thing that makes workplace tribes a little different is their staying power. Even if you leave a company, it is likely you will keep in touch with some of the people you worked with. One of the reasons organisational restructuring doesn’t work is that, while companies can rearrange the organisational chart, those changes may not have any impact on the informal network of the tribe. The tribe determines whether changes will work, whether people buy in, and whether they like the new direction. Most leaders are affected by these naturally occurring groups, whether they are aware of them or not.

Designating someone as the head of an organisation does not mean that they are the tribal leader. Most of the time, tribal leaders are the silent face behind the leadership. A company can ‘officially’ change leadership, but if the new leader isn’t the tribal leader, the changes won’t have much of an impact on the tribe. It’s usually obvious who is not the leader, but it’s often harder to figure out who is. The five stages of workplace tribes are:

Stage One: These tribes are distinguished by hostility and despair. Their members say things like “Life sucks.”

Stage Two: These tribes are characterised by apathy and a sense of futility. They don’t try, they don’t care, they don’t innovate, they don’t hold one another accountable for anything, and they revel in their disengagement. Their members say things like “This place sucks.”

Stage Three: Tribal members are selfish at this stage. They are in it for themselves, and they are extremely averse to collaboration. Their attitude is “I’m great . . . and you’re not.”

Stage Four: Tribe members have a sense of shared values; they willingly share knowledge and collaborate. Stage-four tribes are extremely competitive, but their competitive focus shifts to other tribes or companies. These tribes believe that “We’re great . . . and our competition is not.”

Stage Five: Tribes that attain this rare level are characterised by a sense of “innocent wonderment.” They apply themselves to the creation of things no one has yet dreamed of and are frequently incredibly successful. These tribes say that “Life is great. Let’s do great things!”

It is the commonality of language that distinguishes the groups who are successful from the ones who are not. The first thing that an appointed leader needs to do is identify these naturally forming groups by walking around and seeing who talks to whom. They then need to listen to how that group tends to talk so they can identify the group’s developmental stage. For example: at stage two, group members say things like “They don’t listen to us; they don’t take our suggestions seriously; nothing will ever change; management’s a bunch of idiots; this idea too shall pass; here we go again.” During the study, teachers’ unions tended to run in stage two and, in all fairness, so did a lot of corporate boards.

At stage three, it’s all about me. The most common word researchers heard was “I,” followed by “me” and “my.” These group members say things like “I have an idea. I have a plan to turn this group around, and I hope you’ll join me in leading this turnaround.” Basically, the message is that “I’m great, and you’re not.” Stage-three group members are personally highly competitive.

To move to stage four, a tribe needs a sense of shared values. This is when strengths can become really powerful. When individual tribe members embrace their strengths, they are able to develop plans and strategies that are impossible to attain without leveraging a shared sense of vision, values and strengths. It’s much easier to do this when they can band together and focus on the competition. Them against us.

Stage five requires transitioning from a focus on competition to a shared sense of what everyone is searching for. It’s so rare that it currently only happens about 2% of the time, and it’s unstable. Researchers saw it at Genentech, at parts of IBM, and at parts of General Electric. They also reported seeing it at Pixar and Apple. The interesting thing about stage five is that these are the companies that shake up their industry. Stage-five tribes literally change the world.  Groups at stage five can achieve things that are inconceivable for groups simply aiming to outperform the competition. They can move into a realm of pure creativity, pure leadership, pure innovation. They say, “Let’s do it because it’s possible and we think it will change the world.” The profitability that comes from stage five often continues on for decades. Stage-five tribes are the future of business.

“Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.”
― Sebastian Junger

3 Ways To Build Meaningful Connections

The importance of effective team collaboration to business success cannot be overstated. Richard Branson, the only person ever to build eight billion-dollar companies in eight different industries, and a business expert by anyone’s standards, has this to say about collaboration: “Many people think that an entrepreneur is someone who operates alone, overcoming challenges and bringing his idea to market through sheer force of personality. This is completely inaccurate. Few entrepreneurs – scratch that, almost no one – ever achieved anything worthwhile without help. To be successful in business, you need to connect and collaborate and delegate.”

It’s easy for business communication to stay clustered among employees who regularly work together. However, expanding dialog across departments and all levels of management can exponentially grow feelings of belonging. Pixar’s Ed Catmull believes workplace communication is separate from the decision-making hierarchy. “Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone”. In this way, managers can build connections with any level of employee, even while maintaining decision-making authority. 

The small stuff matters. For example, a new staff member may be more engaged with your organisation if they’re able to say they had a conversation with the company’s General Manager and that they’re both fans of the same sports team. These three strategies can help you create an environment where co-worker relationships thrive and you can move towards your very own Stage Five High Vibe Tribe:

  1. Make Time to Bond

There’s a reason why socialising outside the office and happy-hour style events are so pervasive. Relaxed interactions can establish and build strong relationships that make job-related tasks easier and improve the quality of the workday. Workplace bonding builds resilience within the team and creates cultural cohesion.

  1. Same-Same

Creating the time and space for employees to connect with each other allows commonalities within the team to take shape. It’s an organic process that happens peer-to-peer, even when it’s driven by the spirit of enthusiastic engagement from managers, speakers or trainers. For example, if you have a group of team members who play football, they could start a weekly lunchtime game. This could put the CEO on the same footing as a security guard. 

  1. Shared Passion

Especially during pandemic times, having a shared passion can rally and unify the team. Business doing good though a shared passion can elevate the organisation and anyone connected with it – whether it’s finding ways to serve the community or working to support something larger than oneself. A McKinsey survey identified how important corporate values are to employees, even when there is a gap in the number of companies that walk-the-walk. About 82% of workers said that corporate vision is important, and only 42% felt meaningful intent from their organisations. Researchers caution against inauthentic corporate claims and generic statements of values. They fall well short of a truly shared passion that drives decision making and action.

“Life’s too short” is repeated often enough to be a cliche, but this time it’s true.

You don’t have enough time to be both unhappy and mediocre. It’s not just pointless, it’s painful.

Instead of wondering when your next vacation is,

maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”

― Seth Godin

A Tribe Who Thrives

We all belong to tribes. Our culture and tradition, our home town, our schools, workplaces, interests and hobbies put us in places where we can meet and build relationships with people who share our sameness. Whether we like it or not, we are part of many tribes, even when we are not always conscious about what they mean for our lives. The main reason that we need tribes is because they help us live longer, get further and be happier. Seth Godin says that there only needs to be 2 things for a tribe to come together:

  1. A shared idea
  2. A way to communicate it.


Tribes used to be local, but thanks to the wonders of technology, they are now global, extremely diverse and niche. Today, we can join a tribe with people from all over the world who share the same passions and values that we hold dear.

Connections heal. Tribes buffer us from the negative effects of stress. Even before the pandemic isolation, we were more autonomous than ever before  –  from online grocery shopping to mobile mechanics; we are becoming less reliant on our community every day. Studies have shown that this “independence” we attain through technology is driving isolation, depression, insomnia, stress and anxiety through the 21st century roof. Connecting with like-minded people is now more important than ever before. Finding your tribe is a big part of having a happy and fulfilling life. To find your tribe is to find a wealth of inspiration and affirmation in yourself and your interests. The experience of finding your tribe is often life changing and always reaffirming that who you are and where your interests lie are shared with others. 

Members of your tribe are fellow travellers. The tribe exists to further every member’s journey and well-being. Generosity and compassion are expected. Promiscuity and posing are frowned upon. Selfishness or manipulation lead to ostracism.”
― Scott Perry

4 Ways to Find Your Tribe

The thing to remember when we are looking for our tribe is that it can be a process of trial and error. We have to put ourselves out there to test the waters. This works both inside and outside the workplace.

  1. Show off your interests

Talk about your ‘weirdness’ and don’t act like it’s uncool. Our communities can be a powerful way to achieve the things we desire. If your friends don’t share your passions, they may still know people or groups that do. Other great sites to search up your niche are facebook groups and You may find an active group that you can join today.

  1. Update your skills

Don’t just bide your time, work on your skills while you’re looking for a group to join. When we get better at something we care about, it becomes much more fun and fulfilling. It sets you apart from others and lets you stand out and excel — allowing you to be a helpful and respected member of your tribe. Universal Law states that like attracts like. The effect of accumulated advantage or “The Matthew Principle” puts it like this: to those who have much, more will be given, to those who have little, more will be taken away. Our ancestors realised early on that the more you have to offer, more doors will open and lead to more opportunities.

  1. Give before you take

Before you ask for something in a group, offer people some value first. This is called the reciprocity principle, and psychologists have determined that this is the rule that keeps communities together. When we offer value in the form of advice or contribute to a discussion with the goal of helping another person, we are showing off our expertise and our goodwill. This helps to create positive interactions which result in positive relationships.

  1. Schedule regular in-person meetups

Because we can simulate human interaction online, anytime, on-demand, we tend to take the easy way out. There is no substitute for real life human interaction. It feeds the body, mind and soul and bolsters long-term relationships. Make it a priority to have a ‘meetup’ calendar that members of your tribe can refer to. It’s recommended to have an in-person meetup at least once a month. If your group is global, video conference software like Zoom and Google Hangouts is a great way to have more personal interaction.

“Leaders can change the tenor of the workplace and create harmony in motion toward a favorable result. So every time you say to your team, “Let’s rock and roll,” make sure you have already set up the stage to where they can actually perform like rock stars.”
― Thomas Huynh

Profit is Not a Bad Thing.

In the community-building world, there’s somewhat of a stigma about gaining profit from your community. This is complete hogwash! Do not feel guilty about seeking profit when delivering value. Building a community takes time and effort, and we all need to get something out of the relationships we invest in. Whether that’s opportunity or companionship, there needs to be some kind of mutual benefit for both parties. 

Striving for profit doesn’t mean we need to resort to the stereotypical habits of “icky” networkers. Instead, be a “superconnector.” While networkers have a transactional mindset, superconnectors are more focused on value exchange. No one comes out of a crisis the same, they either emerge stronger or they emerge weaker. There’s not a lot you can do about the economic conditions, but you can determine how you and your tribe respond. If you focus on building the strength of your tribe, you can emerge from this time with a team ready to lock arms and do what it takes to be successful together. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Helping your company survive economically is important, but if you want your team to double down and step into this challenge together, they need more. Your team needs to know that work has meaning and that they make a difference. They want to know that their work improves life for others, that the way they treat each other and your customers has a lasting impact.

“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
― Brené Brown

Do You. Be You.

Do not waste your time trying to be what someone wants you to become. It’s exhausting and futile to feed someone else’s list of rules, boundaries and insecurities. Find your tribe. They will allow you to be you, and celebrate you while you dance in the rain. Being yourself is the only way to find out who truly cares and loves you for you. If you are not your authentic self, how are the people that you are looking for going to find you? If you continue wearing your mask, you’ll only divert from the true connections you are meant to experience. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, and we’re not even exactly sure what the new reality will look like. But at some point, this too shall pass, and organisations will be in full scale growth mode. The question is, who do you want to be standing beside you when this is over?

“Vulnerability really means to be strong and secure enough within yourself that you are able to walk outside without your armour on. You are able to show up in life as just you. That is genuine strength and courage. Armour may look tough, but all it does is mask insecurity and fear.”
― Alaric Hutchinson.

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