Tribes And Tribal Conflicts In A Tech Company

Know Your Tribes. Be Nice to Each Other.

Joe Dunn
Jul 7 · 8 min read

Humans Form Groups. It’s What We Do.

Humans are successful because we collaborate. Collaboration is our super-power. We can form a group with an arbitrary set of people, share concepts within the group and understand that if we make tradeoffs which are costly to us individually we may benefit the group as a whole. We demonstrate this “shared intentionality” — the ability to understand from another human being what is necessary — from a very early age (Yuval Harari does a great job describing the evolutionary effect of this in Sapiens).

We will form groups with almost no pressure — our inclination to do so is wired in very deeply. Separate people by floors in an office building and within a week you’ll start hearing about “the people downstairs” or “those fourth floor teams”. Give your team a name and the team will immediately begin assigning values to who they are (a client of mine decided his team were “Roughriders” — guess how they started to describe themselves).

“We think that the evidence suggests that after about 100,000 years ago most people lived in tribal scale societies (Kelly 1995). These societies are based upon in-group cooperation where in-groups of a few hundred to a few thousand people are symbolically marked by language, ritual practices, dress and the like” Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson

A company is such a group. A company forms around a set of concepts (product design, market fit, market size, competitive position and all the rest), and works to be successful within the constraints of another set of concepts (profit, share price, growth, legal requirements etc).

And, both for practical organizational reasons, and because people do this immediately and instinctively, the company subdivides itself into many smaller and smaller sub-groups.

It’s what we do. And by being aware of what’s going on here, we can make it work much better.

In-groups and out-groups

The Downsides of Tribes (In-Groups and Out-Groups)

The positives of our ability to work in groups are all around us. The car we drove, the bus we took, the lobby, the phone we read, the podcast we listen to — none of them possible without many, many people aligned by goals and intentionality.

“Stereotyping can, therefore, be considered an inescapable adjunct to the human activity of categorising” Bibliography and biography of Tajfel

But this great strength has some unpleasant, and persistent downsides:

  • We will tend to favor people from our in-group. We like them more, we assign them positive attributes, we see them as individuals, and see good, successful behavior of people in our group as being indicative of the group as a whole.
  • But whilst we see “our” group as a positive set of individuals, we will see out-groups as homogenous sets of people with specific, poor traits. We stereotype them. Not only that, but we see poor behavior by “our people” as a temporary anomaly, but similar behavior from “the others” as “how they are”.
  • In the worst cases, we will start to see “out-groups” as less than human, not worthy of the basic respect we give to our “human” peers. (And, yes, certain leadership styles can take advantage of this inherent bias with terrible results).
  • We are biased to see groups as being in conflict.

(chapter and verse on all this here).

The Word “Tribe”

“Group”, as a word, feels antiseptic, as though a collection of people working together is just a mechanism, a set of cogs. “Tribe” is evocative and more useful in thinking through how teams can work more effectively together. We think of tribes having:

  • cultures
  • rituals
  • identity
  • a particular look
  • a territory
  • values
  • a language or language style
  • a status structure of some kind

How would you approach a new tribe? What culture do they have? What rituals do they employ? What do they value?

Tribal Conflicts at Work

Engineering vs Product, Marketing vs Sales, Sales vs Sales Ops — the list of Classic Tribal Conflicts at Work is pretty long, and recurs over and over again.

Corporate departments have goals that are necessarily in conflict. Product (usually) defines what should be built, but Engineering needs to build it, and how the thing is built deeply informs what it is in the first place. Sales has to close customers, marketing has to excite the right customers to show up. Sales thinks they know the customers — they see them every day. Product thinks sales just wants a list of features that they are hearing from customers they want to close.

The tension between groups is necessary! We want our tribes to be committed to their responsibilities. But our inherent, deeply wired, tribal behavior complicates how the tensions show up, causing currents of distrust and confusion far below rational disagreements.

Remember, “our” tribe is full of smart people who are well-intentioned. The “other” tribe is negative, or too fast-moving, or doesn’t think things through, or is “too close to the customer” — any number of attributes that we’ve decided everybody in that tribe exhibits. We on the lookout for them. We expect them.

So communication and collaboration between our tribes is already fraught with bias before we even get into the room together.

“Those engineers just build what they want”, “Product is in an ivory tower”, “Sales just want to sell what they know”. Anything sound familiar?

Tribal Styles

Complicating things further, our tribes attract different types of people, communicate using different conventions and value different things.

A super-technical CEO client of mine says “I can’t talk to the Sales people, they don’t think things through! they just want to make me happy!”. Another CEO: “I’m going to have to fire my Marketing VP, again, I just can’t understand what they’re saying”. A brilliant Marketing VP (different company, incidentally): “I try and tell the CEO that Marketing is an emotional discipline and he has no idea what I’m talking about”.

At the risk of generalizing to make a point: Engineers tend to be introverted, highly rational problem-solvers. Sales people, extroverted, emotional connectors. Brilliant legal counsel are deeply rational and rule-bound and will drive most CTOs (who are also deeply rational, but never saw a rule they couldn’t break in their life) up the wall. And so on (a new one I’m interested in is “software engineers” vs “data scientists” — fascinating!).

So our corporate departments are set up to be naturally in tension, but because of a deep human bias, find each other to be “different”, and have styles and personalities which seem to each of them to be borderline incomprehensible.

What could go wrong?

Be curious. Be humble.

What To Do About It

As always, awareness is the key, and curiosity and humility are the super-tools.

Once you have a job that requires you to work across groups, of any kind, start asking yourself some questions:

  • where am I making an “out-group generalization” about the tribe I’m working with (“all fourth floor people are arrogant because they have a view”, “all the early employees are lazy…”)?
  • what is the prevailing style of the tribe? inward-looking? slow? fast? happy? sad? neat? sloppy?
  • what does this tribe value? connection? money? speed? insight? problem-solving?

Now you can think about how best to move forward:

  • how can I communicate with this tribe so I am heard?
  • given what I know about what this tribe values, how I can I take account of that in our negotiations?
  • how am I holding onto my group identification such that it’s getting in the way (“I’m an engineer — engineers are the elite in this company”)?
  • how can I show that I am on their side. which, in the end, you are — you are both members of a larger tribe, that of the company itself.

Curiosity is a great tool. Imagine coming across a tribe somewhere (you get to make it up: jungle, down the street, in a coffee shop). How will you listen to them? How will you learn their language, their customs, become their friend?

A True Story

I had a client, Head of Product, who routinely had difficulty winning over the Sales team to the roadmap. It was a good roadmap, they should be excited, he said. So I asked to see his slides, and show me how he presented them.

Very logical, factually correct.

I asked him what the sales team liked. It took a while, but he noticed that the sales team liked being upbeat, they liked optimism, energy, emotion.

The next roadmap presentation started with my client, full of energy, saying how pumped he was about the coming quarter, how killer the new features were and how happy he was to be with them presenting. Nothing logical at all. All emotion. It went great.

He was, for that meeting, not “the guy from Product” (a strange tribe from Mission Street in San Francisco), but a friend, an ally, one of the tribe!

Photo by Dharmesh Patel on Unsplash

The Work of Being Human

At the risk of going outside the box of leadership at work: overcoming our tribal biases is, I think, a critical part of being human. Our ability to form tribes has lead us to our tremendous success as a species and caused our most terrible behavior and tragedies.

By being aware, careful, and skillful with our drive to connect with “our own”, we can build better companies. And a better world. It’s important work. Good luck with it.

(If you are a founder, manager or technical leader interested and would like to talk further about your tribe, your tribes, or any other leadership topic, get in touch!)

Tech People Leadership

Notes from coaching founders, technical leaders and execs in the tech industry

Joe Dunn

Written by

Joe Dunn

Executive coach, working with execs and technical leaders in high growth companies in San Francisco. Ex Engineer, VP Eng from way back.

Tech People Leadership

Notes from coaching founders, technical leaders and execs in the tech industry