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By David Harder on June, 28, 2017

Without Insight, Your Tribe Can Make or Break You

We have that big announcement to make and there they are waiting for us. The Tribe.

The problem is, tribes have rigid rituals and expectations, and when we break those rituals, they generally respond with some form of “You’re crazy.” For example, let’s say that we go home to the spouse and declare, “I’m going to leave the six-figure job that I can do in a coma. In fact, I’m going to start a business that is altruistic in nature.” What will the spouse say? In an alternate scenario we call a meeting with our coworkers and tell everyone, “I know the budget has been slashed by 40% but you know what? Today, we are committing to a business revolution.” You guessed it, they are going to think and say, “You’re crazy.”

In the natural progression of articulating a vision and bringing it to life, we begin by telling someone, and usually that someone is a member of our tribe.

Many of us don’t really think about the power that tribes have on our lives. Whenever we belong to a tribe, we are making an agreement to play by the rules of that tribe. This is the essence of belonging. Tribes include families, employers, religions, political parties, social groups, and community groups. The power of belonging to a tribe cannot be underestimated. Author Seth Godin said, “It turns out that tribes, not money, not factories, that can change our world, that can change politics, that can align large numbers of people. Not because you force them to do something against their will. But because they wanted to connect.” Of course we want to connect! This dynamic also implies how important it is for employers to become the tribe of choice. The dark side of the goodness of tribes is they do have rigid rituals, expectations, and influence that can keep many of us fully stuck.

Los Angeles is a city of tribes with thousands of groups adopting distinct rituals, values, and expectations. I have three styles of suits, two types of sport coats, and two forms of casual wear, all so I can be respectful when I visit client sites. None of them appreciate my showing up in the wrong costume. I’ve been told, “Leave the tie in the car,” “Wear a jacket,” and “You look like one of us.”

The pressures of tribes on career choices are legendary. During a particularly large Inspired Work Program, we had about a dozen men come back from lunch laughing. They had defined the Jewish mother’s hierarchy of acceptable career choices. It was all based on how one mother reacted when the other shared what her son did for a living. There were three acceptable choices and each one provoked varying levels of enthusiasm. A minor rise of the eyebrows was CPA. Halfway up the forehead was attorney. To the hairline? Of course, it was doctor. A specialist provoked a natural facelift.

One of those sons went home and announced he was leaving his legal practice to become a florist. How do you think they responded? I am just kidding when I share that one aunt cracked an egg over her head.

Sadly, our tribe often reacts to a new mission, vision, and purpose with the default reactions of pushback. It isn’t a particularly conscious way to react as it is usually driven by fear. Of course, it is easy for us to react with righteousness and anger. Our loved ones are supposed to support us. Our colleagues are the ones who ought to understand. Our spouses should be happy and back our new ideas. But this is not how human beings process change. Human beings are hard-wired to think of something other than themselves for a maximum of 15 seconds. This means that when we make a declaration of change, the tribe wonder how it is going to impact them or their fears about us. My good friend Tom Drucker launched the Xerox Sales Institute in the early 1980s. Faced with global competition for the first time, Xerox hired a cadre of behavioral scientists to study the psychology of selling. This is where they identified the 15-second process, which turned pitch-selling on its head. People are not interested in our resumes. They are not interested in our declarations. People are focused on one thing and that is fulfilled expectations. Today’s better sales professionals don’t make pitches; they ask great questions. The best of our modern leaders are inquisitive and constantly finding the needs and expectations of their stakeholders. Tribes have a tendency to be more receptive when we make the declaration in ways that fit the tribe’s needs and expectations. We increase our probability of success by managing these tribal responses. Also, a new mission can often require the needs of an additional tribe or moving altogether.

Here are a few examples of speaking or not speaking to expectations:

(Self-Indulgent Version)

“You know what? I’m quitting the law firm on Monday and going to cash in my stock to start a business of my own. I’m buying that florist shop on the corner. You’re upset? Why can’t you be happy for me?” 

(Tribe-Friendly Version)

“I have an announcement to make. For the last ten years, I’ve been bringing all of this negative energy to our gatherings. You have become used to my unhappiness with practicing law. So, I’m pursuing work where I can have more freedom and get out of endless, mentally strenuous days. I’m buying that florist shop on the corner and my commitment is to show up to the family with a smile on my face and flowers in my hands.” 

(Self-Indulgent Version)

“Profits have been sinking for a long time. So today, we launch a business revolution. All of you are going to bring one actionable innovation to me by the end of the month and we are going to pull out of our nosedive. Now, get back to work.” 

(Tribe-Friendly Version)

“Many of you are uncomfortable with the cutbacks and the downturn in the market. I was sad to see so many people leave. But, you are here and you are here for a reason. I am asking that everyone works on one actionable innovation and have it ready by the end of the month. If we create a business revolution, all of us are going to have more to work with, we will have more security, and we will look back on this period as a turning point, one that we remember with pride. My commitment to you is this experience will help all of us grow.” 

The problem that many of us have with change is that we don’t really think about the impact and the influence of tribes on our decisions and commitments, especially when it involves a change in the tribe’s beliefs. Sometimes, we hide the commitment so we don’t have to deal with the pushback. Often, a colleague is sitting right next to coworkers, withholding a breakthrough because he is concerned with the cynicism and contempt that would get showered on him for speaking up.

How do we treat the problem?

Within an organization, this is why I am a big advocate of giving everyone consultative sales training. Teaching people how to access other people’s needs and expectations is one of the greatest skills to build successful individuals and organizations. On a leadership level, learning how to ask stakeholders great questions and actually listen to their answers is one of the most effective ways to move tribes in positive ways. Also, consider the powerful dynamic of tribe as yet another reason that developing a strong employer brand is every bit as important as your consumer brand. Without that, you might have a tribe that rebels at everything you throw at them.

Above all, if your current tribe isn’t a match, don’t try to succeed on your own.



Brought to you by David Harder, President – Inspired Work, Inc.

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