Tribalism in business affects employees, customers and your company’s bottom line. Here’s what you need to know about tribalism.

What happens when two teams in the same company can’t – or won’t – work together?

This phenomenon, often referred to as tribalism in business, can result from a number of things, including:

  • Limited resources
  • Competing needs
  • Competitive mindsets
  • Poor communication
  • Silos of information and responsibilities
  • Perceived favoritism from higher ups
  • Ego-centric beliefs and behaviors
  • Lack of alignment between leaders

All of these situations and behaviors can create problems, which can be exacerbated further when leadership styles clash between leaders of different teams.

Over time – and often due to a well-meaning sense of loyalty to their own supervisors, bosses and managers, subordinate team members can adopt entrenched, oppositional attitudes and behaviors.

When this phenomenon is allowed to fester, it can yield chronically dysfunctional relationships. Rival teams may not only struggle to work together but also struggle to work collaboratively with other teams and departments.

Unfortunately, if not addressed, workplace tribalism can impact employee morale and customer satisfaction alike, reducing organizational productivity and impacting your company’s bottom line.

Can business leaders identify tribalism in the workplace and eliminate it? The answer, fortunately, is yes.

Here’s how to spot and fix a dysfunctional team displaying signs of workplace tribalism.

What are the common signs of tribalism in business? 

Any business will have employees who don’t get along from time to time. When there’s tension in the workplace, it can impact communications, collaboration and coordination throughout company.

Workplace tribalism can be the most extreme manifestation of this tension. An entire group of people within the business acts in ways that conflict with other teams – and ultimately may adversely impact your company’s strategy and mission. 

Here are the most common signs of tribalism.

1. (Intentionally) poor communication

The effects of tribalism often aren’t egregious, easily punishable acts. Instead, minor choices accumulate and create a palpable tension and distrust between teams:

  • Ignoring emails
  • Disregarding advice
  • Minimizing contributions of the rival team or its individual members in public or behind the scenes
  • Undercutting decisions
  • Dismissing expertise or knowledge
  • Engaging in hostile behavior or displaying a negative tone in meetings and communications

2. Blaming and nitpicking

This occurs when groups display an “us versus them” mentality, overtly blaming others in the workplace for errors or problems.

Uncalled for criticism and blaming can turn cross-team meetings into toxic, emotional rollercoasters. And the negativity can even adversely impact single team meetings, too.

3. Inefficiencies and redundancies

If your teams aren’t communicating well (or at all) and are routinely throwing metaphorical rocks at one another, then there will be natural inefficiencies.

Over time, crippling redundancies may arise where the two teams end up working separately on similar projects. This can result in chronic, debilitating misalignment in project messaging, strategy and delivery.

4. Refusing to work together

This is the most severe, recognizable sign of tribalism in business.

As an example, in an effort to bypass interaction, employees may solicit bids for work outside the company rather than use service teams within the organization. (This can prove take an unnecessary, avoidable bite out of your budget, too.)

Another potential hazard? Teams may fail to meet a critical deadline and consequently lose a client simply because they’d rather not work collaboratively with another internal team to get the job done. When the arguments and tension are this extreme, work productivity inevitably suffers. 

Of course, there’s yet another risk in this scenario. Employees may decide to leave rather than stay in a toxic situation. This, in turn, can lead to greater employee turnover, which can consume time and labor and result in lost connections and employer reputation.

Another problem tribalism can create? Tribalistic leaders may associate with or seek to replace lost staff with people who think and look exactly like them, which can impact a company’s efforts to use workplace diversity as a business strategy.

5. Blaming the customer 

When tribalism takes hold – and errors and inefficiencies follow, teams may be willing to find fault elsewhere, even beyond the “other” people on their rival team, when they come up short. Instead of troubleshooting customer service or production issues, team members may even find ways to place the blame on your most important person: your customer.

Left unchecked, this development can cost companies time, money and hard-earned clients, since workplace tribalism prevents action on the root causes of issues.

How can you prevent workplace tribalism?

To put it simply, the best defense against tribalism in business is prevention. Who bears responsibility for that? Ideally every employee should be willing to pushback on the harmful attitudes and behaviors described above.

But, as with so many aspects of company culture, supervisors and other, more senior leaders are the best defense against toxic workplace tribalism.

Although the following strategies might not be 100% effective in preventing the problem, they can help safeguard against it.

Create a clear code of conduct.

It seems obvious, but it’s actually critical to spell out exactly what behaviors you expect of your team members (and which ones you’ll address consistently moving forward) in plain language.

So, if your organization doesn’t already have one, create a code of conduct and ethics. This policy will detail the company’s expectations for how employees should behave, communicate and collaborate in pursuit of the business’ shared goals.

Setting clear expectations on what success looks like for your company helps set the tone for your business culture.

If you have one in place and tribalism is taking root (or has already festered) in your business, then chances are people are ignoring the existing code of conduct. Nonetheless, this policy is something you can reference when working to correct the issue.

To right everyone’s course, a new, revised or simply revisited code of conduct discussion can serve as a useful benchmark, something to which everyone can be expected to adhere.

Moving forward, it can also be useful to hold people or teams accountable in clear, no-nonsense terms.

Create discussion forums for your employees. 

If you’re in a more senior leadership position, you might not have a clear view into the day-to-day dynamics between teams. However, that’s no excuse for letting tribalism enter the workplace.

In fact, senior leaders arguably have more freedom and responsibility to influence behavior both through their own professionalism and the organizational systems and policies they help craft.

A straightforward way to tap into potential issues is to work with human resources to provide employees safe ways to surface problems that, if unaddressed, can potentially fester not only into run-of-the-mill negativity or full-fledged culture of workplace tribalism.

This can include, but certainly not limited to:

  • Surveys
  • Anonymous comment submission
  • Discussion groups

By giving employees a voice, you can short circuit tribalism from building up over time. 

How can you address tribalism in business? 

The symptoms of tribalism typically manifest themselves at the team level.

But the root cause of tribalism is a failure in leadership.

When a team doesn’t work well with others, it’s usually because the leader of that team either set the tribalistic tone or the leader allowed the behavior to become the norm.

If you find yourself in this situation as a supervisor or middle manager, remember that you can be as instrumental in turning it around as you were in helping it take root.

To overcome these dysfunctional dynamics on your own team, follow these steps:

1. Be introspective about how you’ve divided responsibilities and held your direct reports accountable.

Ask yourself:

  • Have you set clear parameters on the division of responsibilities?
  • Have you established expectations about workplace behavior?
  • Are shared goals clearly defined and communicated, across teams?
  • Do you hold both teams and their leaders accountable for meeting goals in the same way?
  • Or do you routinely and overtly show favoritism to one team or team leader in a way that reinforces the tribal mentality?

The first step must be for leadership to admit there’s an issue and commit to resolving it.

Answers to these questions may be hard to face, but they can also help you determine actions necessary to resolving the matter.

2. Seek intervention between the leaders causing the dysfunction.

Typically, it’s only a more senior leader who can step in and resolve tensions. That’s because a subordinate tribalistic leader might not be sufficiently self-aware of her team’s issues or their impact.

When tribalism takes hold of teams that report to you, work to use your influence and authority to bring about a peaceful resolution.

The degree of intervention required will vary by company, but a basic stepwise approach might look like this:

  • Schedule a meeting between team leaders and anyone of the same seniority that reports to you. (This transparency can be essential to showing daylight is being introduced to the problem.)
  • Acknowledge that you recognize that there is tension and inefficiencies. In other words, call out workplace tribalism as such and signal firmly that you’ll no longer tolerate it.
  • Seek to re-establish and gain consensus on the division of responsibilities between your direct reports.
  • Inform all of your direct reports that you will hold them accountable collectively for achieving set goals by working together. Emphasize the role your code of conduct will play moving forward, too.
  • Follow through on your word to not tolerate tribalism among your direct reports.

Sometimes tribalism starts at the very top of the company. Who, then, tells the C-suite that they’re causing a culture problem? Intervention can come from board members or other internal corporate leaders who can offer consulting, training and support.

Also, when tribalism occurs at the most senior level, candid peer-to-peer conversations may need to take place in greater privacy to maintain confidence in top-tier leadership. And the discussions should also be undertaken by people (or the person) most apt to have the tribalistic leaders respect going into the conversation.

3. Construct an environment of reconciliation across the teams.

In the wake of tribalistic leaders being called out by a more senior manager, trust and morale between teams may be shaky. This is understandable, but again this is why a middle or top-level leaders commitment to resolving the matter is so important.

Once you’ve gotten your leadership team (your direct reports) aligned and agreeing to change the culture, you must also work on rebuilding trust and amiable relationships between the teams.

Create a scenario where once rival teams must publicly display their collaboration. Even if this is largely ceremonial, this show of unity can begin to change the tone.

Help team leaders align messaging around the new spirit of collaboration and cooperation. Have them announce the breakdown of silos using similar language. Because they work more closely with team members, it’s up to your direct reports to frame the environment and define their teams’ mission with clear expectations for outcomes.

Ideally, with the newly delineated responsibilities of the teams, you should consider initiating a project that requires the teams work together and makes the best use of their talents equally. This might be a work-related project or it might be philanthropic in nature, something that brings to light shared values of employees and the organization. (Ongoing corporate community involvement can be a great way to help foster cross-team collaboration moving forward.)

By avoiding an atmosphere of conflicting or unclear goals, managers can help set the tone for collaboration rather than destructive competition.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to encourage people to have a little fun together – and get to know one another outside of emails and project meetings. Ultimately, the more team members see each other as humans (and not the member of a rival group), the better your teams will be able to collaborate.

Summing it all up

Unresolved tribalism can lead to missed deadlines, lost clients and overall reduced productivity. Over time, as disagreements and grievances accumulate, teams’ dysfunction often lead to tension, stress and disengaged employees.

Tribalism in business could also lead to employee relations issues stemming from low employee morale, such as talent flight and difficulty in recruiting new employees. Managers and supervisors acting out of tribalism will often hire like-minded staff, potentially leading to a lack of diversity and inclusion across your organization.

As a leader, it’s up to you to make sure your culture supports your company’s mission, vision and values. If you’d like more ideas on how to strengthen the business culture in your organization, download our free magazine: Insperity guide to company culture.