tribal drum
Corporations can be as tribalistic as any other kind of group.

Those of us who have more conventional jobs should not be too quick to judge law enforcement agencies for their tribalistic tendencies.  Corporate workplaces are hardly strangers to the phenomenon.

Probably the most obvious examples of workplace neo-tribalism are large Japanese corporations, with everything from company anthems to their own corporate sports teams.   However, just about anyone who has been in the workforce for any length of time is likely to have seen less dramatic forms of tribalism.

Our work groups have long been described by management theorists as the contemporary equivalents of the hunting band, an archetypal tribal group.  This characterization can lend a welcome bit of dash to activities that might otherwise not be considered especially pulse-elevating, but sometimes the net effects of workplace tribalism are not so positive.

An example that sticks in my own memory involves a discussion with my boss about a business opportunity at an aerospace firm where somebody we knew had been an employee.   My boss cautioned me not to expect him to have too much insider status on this basis.  “He’s a Lockheed California guy,” my boss explained.   “The others are Lockheed Georgia.”  As he went on to describe the intensity of the rivalry and suspicion between the two divisions, I felt he might as easily have been talking about the Hatfields and the McCoys in the "hollers" of 19th-century Appalachia.

Even when they are not being excessively territorial, work groups can be tribal in other ways.  This includes their basic approach to knowledge.  Like almost any other type of group, corporations tend to operate on the basis of significant amounts of received “tribal wisdom.”

On the plus side, this means that it is often not necessary for an individual to have a particularly firm grasp of how to go about performing a given task, because the workplace “tribe” provides so much feedback that it can be enough for the worker simply to be attentive and willing.  In such an environment, this feedback serves essentially the same function as a backup camera helping someone parallel park a large vehicle.  (Or perhaps a better analogy might be to an aircraft’s navigational instruments--where learning to trust the instruments over one’s own senses can be essential for survival.)

On the minus side, for an individual whose skills or insight exceed those of his work tribe, doing a genuinely good job in an environment of this type can involve a harrowing (and risky) amount of “fighting the instruments.”

Also, for the organization at large, relying on nothing more than what “everyone says” can turn out to be just flying blind.

A notable example of this occurred during the financial services industry’s recent infatuation with mortgage-backed securities.  Although these investments quickly became so complex and arcane that virtually no one personally understood them, this was not commonly perceived to be a cause for concern. Faith in the collective tribal wisdom of the financial services industry prevailed until it came within a hair’s breadth of bringing down the entire global financial system.