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Culture: Tribal roles at work

Culture: Tribal roles at work

  • 28 April 2020
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Who are you? You might be an individualistic, highly-educated, autonomous professional - just like many other leaders, professionals, coaches, and consultants reading this blog. You might think that you’re alone, unique, and independent. But we’re always connected to the larger whole.

You’re part of a few tribes, clans, or groups - be they family, groups of friends, communities, or the organization. Your deep psychological needs urge you to belong to a group and collaborate on a shared purpose that gives meaning to life and work.

Healthy tribes, groups, and organizations fulfill our need to belong, and our need for meaning, clarity, and safety. And whether you like it or not, thinking of yourself as a modern, independent individual, you might play a tribal role in your organizational system. 

Looking at the roles in traditional tribes can help you gain insights into the interaction dynamics in modern organizations. What’s possible in different positions? It might help to understand yourself and others, and where you would be at your best at work.

Looking at the organization as a tribe with a distinct culture, you might see with whom you could collaborate to leverage organizational change - and how to make it work for different groups.

These roles are inspired by the Dutch book Building Tribes by anthropologists Jitske Kramer and Danielle Braun.

The Chief

Thinking of your organization as a tribe, who stands out? The chief, of course. The chief in modern times is the leader, the executive, the CEO, or the project leader. Their task is to represent the organization, to guarantee safety (against threats from the outside), to make decisions, set the direction to go toward, set boundaries, coordinate the others and lead them toward the purpose or goal. You’ll see a healthy chief standing upright and leading the way, while

What the chief needs are the permission or authority from the followers. If they don’t assign authority to the chief, then he or she is powerless and can’t get much done.

The Gatherers

The gatherers are taking care of the tribe. In traditional tribes, the gatherers were the women who wandered in the environment looking for food, bringing home not just nuts and berries but also observations and warnings of what was happening outside. In current organizations, think of them as the employees who execute the organization’s core task, those who are in contact with customers, and the staff that facilitates their co-workers. Think of HR people, secretaries, the financial department, the customer support team, the manufacturing shift.

They listen more to each other than to the leaders - supporting each other if it’s a healthy culture.You’ll see them bending and twisting to get things done and provide for the tribe/organization. They need safety, rhythm, and peace to do their work. They can’t focus on their work in turmoil and distraction.

The Sub-Chiefs

The sub-chiefs. When the tribe grows over 150 people, it needs sub-chiefs to coordinate and to bond within smaller groups. Nowadays, they are the middle managers, team supervisors, or team leads of production lines. 

They connect the world of the chief(s) and the gatherers doing the work and often feel loyalty to both. They travel and translate between those two worlds. They balance interests and manage relationships. You’ll see them go back and forth, translate, negotiate, explain, understand, and look for the middle ground. They are oiling the machine (yes, that’s an anachronistic industrial-age metaphor).

They need support, trust, and loyalty, both from the top chief(s) and the gatherers to be a valuable connection oiling the layers - or else the pressure from two sides might crush them.

The Hunters

The hunters - ah, the old-fashioned heroes! The men who went out to hunt; a dangerous and glorious role that provided the tribe with meat, action, and heroic stories. In current organizations, they are the salesmen hunting for clients, the entrepreneurs with new ideas, the ones who expand the organization’s territory and market. Here’s R&D, the sales reps, the super-specialists. 

They’re extremely focused on their goals and targets. You’ll see them run outside, ready for battle, looking for clients or ideas or deals. No time for chats, just focus. They need respect from the others, and the means to do what they excel at.

The Magicians

The magicians are responsible for the connection between reality and the otherworld. They are knowledgable and skilled healers, they consult the gods, and they can cure and curse.

What does that mean in modern organizations? They foster the relationship between reality and possibility. They help the future emerge. They often have an independent or free role, as an external consultant or coach, or as an internal consultant, trainer, or HR professional. They facilitate dialogue and hold space for others - so that the others can come up with solutions, viable future plans, and heal and resolve conflicts.

You’ll see them wander through the hallways, sense what is happening, explore what is possible, ask questions, and create safe spaces for the future to emerge, or for healing to take place.

What they need is trust from the tribe and the top chief. The others tend to gossip, complain, and judge the magician(s) - and without trust and support, they might be blamed and kicked out.

The Elders

The elders guard the tribe’s existence and supervise its ethical standards, meaning, and purpose (the totem) and its future. Think of modern-day Supervisory Boards, Advisory Councils, the retired company founders, the professionals working in governance and compliance, and the oldest employees who have been with the organization for decades (if they are respected and seen - this depends on the hierarchy and power distance in the organizational culture).

You won’t see them much - they’re watching from the background.They need trust and respect from the others, but also a clear link to the present day. They’ll become dysfunctional if they dwell on the past.

Questions to work with tribal roles

  • Who are you most of the time? In what role are you at your best? What’s the dynamic in your organization between the chief, gatherers, hunters,  sub-chiefs, elders, and magicians? Which roles are leading? Who is part of which group? Can you understand their perspective and needs?
  • Who would you need to work with (connect, influence) to help the organization develop, heal, solve conflicts, or get unstuck? Who would you need in a movement of organizational change?

The roles helped me see what was happening in one of my consulting assignments. It was like a helpful pair of glasses that showed a different layer of the situation. When I shared it with the executive team, it helped them see the issue as well. The tribal analogy may not work for everyone, and that’s okay. Use it if it’s useful to you. 

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© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.