Leading Workplace Tribes

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An Executive, who had watched her organization grow from a tight-knit team of 35 to a global workforce of over 5,000 people, shared this observation: “I used to know everyone personally— without even trying. When we reached 60 people, I had to work at it. When we hit 150, forget it! I had to accept that most new hires would be strangers.”

When pushed on it, she couldn’t really identify the exact point when she realized that maintaining a personal relationship with everyone in the company was no longer possible.  But her gut said it was around the 150 employee mark.

Chances are; her gut is right.

According to evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, there is a limit to the number of people we can maintain a social relationship with—and that number is approximately 150 people. He arrived at this number by following a variety of converging paths, including:

  • The average number of people in traditional hunter/gatherer tribes.
  • The average size of villages in the 18th century according to preserved records.
  • The size of the human brain relative to other social animals.
  • The typical number of individuals in a community of socially complex animals.

Even social media, today’s ultimate tribe-building tool, doesn’t stray far from Dunbar’s number. When Facebook checked in 2010, the average number of friends for Facebook users was between 120 and 130. This year, according to PEW Research, that number has risen to 245, but most people see only a fraction of those friends on a regular basis. While social media tools like Facebook can help us stay in touch with an ever increasing number of people, they don’t fundamentally change the reality of Dunbar’s number, which is based on the brain’s ability to process and maintain complex, multi-layered social relationships.

What Does it Mean in the Workplace?

Dunbar’s number has wide-ranging implications for the workplace; from the way departments are structured to the degree of socialization that’s supported by management. It has even contributed to the development of new leadership models and approaches.

According to the authors of Tribal Leadership (Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fisher-Wright), one of the most effective ways to build a thriving organization is by leveraging the naturally occurring tribal groups (20-150 people) that form in every workplace. While they acknowledge that these groups may not start off as a positive force, they believe the right kind of tribal leadership will make them unstoppable. In the book they describe the following five stages of employee tribe development and culture. They also provide leadership strategies to move tribes through the stages to become united, highly effective workplace tribes.

  1. Stage One: The stage most professionals skip, these are tribes whose members are despairingly hostile—they may create scandals, steal from the company, or even threaten violence.
  2. Stage Two: The dominant culture for 25 percent of workplace tribes, this stage includes members who are passively antagonistic, sarcastic, and resistant to new management initiatives.
  3. Stage Three: 49 percent of workplace tribes are in this stage, marked by knowledge hoarders who want to outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. They are lone warriors who not only want to win, but need to be the best and brightest.
  4. Stage Four: The transition from “I’m great” to “we’re great” comes in this stage where the tribe members are excited to work together for the benefit of the entire company.
  5. Stage Five: Less than 2 percent of workplace tribal culture is in this stage when members who have made substantial innovations seek to use their potential to make a global impact.

In the words of Seth Godin: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” 

Perhaps, as Robin Dunbar suggests, the size of our brains will continue to limit the extent of our personal and workplace tribes, but that’s no reason to limit their potential.


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How to Shake Off a Slump

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The Urban Dictionary defines a slump as “A period of time during which a person goes without an object or action.” When I think about what it feels like to be in a slump, the geological definition seems so much more apt: “a form of mass wasting that occurs when a coherent mass of loosely consolidated materials or rock layers moves a short distance down a slope.” Yes, that pretty much describes the slump sensation—an inexorable slide down the productivity slope of life and work.   Photo by Tambako The Jaguar, Flickr Sometimes a …

The Power of a Leader’s Appreciation

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It’s always refreshing to watch a leader demonstrate the principles he advocates; showing, by example, how those principles translate into action. Last week, we celebrated the official opening of our new NetSuite Waterloo location (home of TribeHR), in Kitchener, Ontario. True to the spirit of celebration, the event reflected a carnival theme, complete with midway games, popcorn and funnel cake cupcakes (yes, there were cupcakes with funnel cakes on top – you had to be there!) The space was packed with employees, customers, suppliers, friends, family and local dignitaries. Ceremony was minimal and fun was the order of …

Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 2)

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In Part 1 of this article, drawing from The Power of Stay Interviews, by Richard P. Finnegan, we looked at some traditional means of managing employee retention and why they often don’t work. We also considered the main reasons employees choose to stay with a particular employer (or not), and what commonly contributes to that decision. As the title of his books suggests, Finnegan advocates stay interviews as one of the most important tools for cultivating employee engagement and improving retention. Finnegan’s defines a stay interview as: “A structured discussion a leader conducts with each individual …

Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 1)

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While it makes sense to ask a departing employee why she’s chosen to leave, it’s a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has galloped off into the sunset. Employee retention is critical, and engagement is personal. That’s why finding out what didn’t work for the one who’s leaving, may not give you the information you need to keep the people you still have. Photo by Daivd, Wikimedia Commons In The Power of Stay Interviews, Richard P. Finnegan suggests a more proactive approach to retaining your best employees. …

Problem Solving with Six Thinking Hats

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Have you ever wondered how a room full of intelligent, talented people can often get bogged down by personalities and individual agendas? Instead of constructively working together toward a solution, people often get tied up in their personal need for attention or the compulsion to be seen as competent, no matter what. Or perhaps progress is stunted by the perpetual pessimists who know they can’t be blamed for failure if they never support an idea. From image by Nelly Ghazaryan, Wikimedia Commons One useful tool for managing group discussions to take advantage of everyone’s unique intelligence …

When Employees are Caregivers

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Recently, I attended a conference for the families and caregivers of children with a rare genetic disorder that’s generally accompanied by a wide range of special needs. It quickly became obvious that everyone in attendance was highly committed to ensuring the best possible outcomes and quality of life for their loved ones. The amount of time and energy required to deliver on that commitment was, in many cases, extraordinary.  Photo by Philippe Leroyer, Flickr So how, I wondered, do they juggle personal and professional commitments on top of the extra demands of supporting a child with special …

Strategies to Maximize Your Vacation

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Most people have a favorite time of year to take vacation. Sometimes it’s a holdover from childhood. Sometimes it’s related to preferred activities (or preferred weather). And sometimes it tied to the requirements and expectations at work. In spite of this variety of underlying reasons, the majority of Americans (or at least the majority of those who actually take vacation!) prefer to travel in summer: 59% according to a recent survey conducted by Ask Your Target Market. Of those planning a summer vacation, the most popular month to travel is July, with the second week of July …

Some Things are Worth Repeating

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One of the most disappointing reactions to the recent US Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of gay marriage was the number of employers who immediately sought legal advice on how to get around it. Bias by Mocks08, Flickr   Even when the collective consciousness of our society is raised by such a decision, many people still struggle to hold on to deeply held biases. Of course, if you’re one of those looking for ways around this new reality, you already know you have a bias (although you might not call it that!) A conscious bias is generally …

Human Rights and Human Wrongs

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From an HR perspective, any discussion of human rights typically revolves around discrimination and the prevention of discriminatory practices in hiring, managing or disciplining workers. Specifics about what constitutes discrimination, and who is protected against it, vary from one jurisdiction to another. In some ways, the U.S. sets a high standard for protecting human rights in the workplace, and yet it’s evident that: Photo by Jenny Downing, Flickr “The concept of workers’ rights as human rights has only recently begun to influence the formation and implementation of labor policy in the United States. In the …

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The Latest from Workplace Tribes
Leading Workplace Tribes July 30, 2015
How to Shake Off a Slump July 28, 2015
The Power of a Leader’s Appreciation July 23, 2015
Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 2) July 21, 2015
Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 1) July 16, 2015
Problem Solving with Six Thinking Hats July 14, 2015
When Employees are Caregivers July 09, 2015
Strategies to Maximize Your Vacation July 07, 2015
Some Things are Worth Repeating July 02, 2015
Human Rights and Human Wrongs June 30, 2015