Teamwork and Tribal Instincts

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

Concept description

Humans are social animals whose behaviour in groups and teams is partly driven by tribal instincts.

Nir Ayal (reference below) writes:

“We are a species that depend on one another. Scientists theorize humans have specially adapted neurons that help us feel what others feel, providing evidence that we survive through our empathy for others. We’re meant to be part of a tribe and our brains seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included.

“Many of our institutions and industries are built around this need for social reinforcement. From civic and religious groups to spectator sports, the need to feel social connectedness informs our values and drives much of how we spend our time. Communication technology in particular has given rise to a long history of companies that have provided better ways of delivering what I call, “rewards of the tribe.””

Tribal instincts are powerful and they can have positive and negative effects on behaviour. Judith Fein (reference below) writes:

“Do you belong to a tribe? The answer is: you probably do. Unless you are a parthenogenically-produced hermit living in a log cabin in the inaccessible woods, you belong, even peripherally, to some tribe.  It can be a sports team, religion, government or corporate entity, spiritual group, sorority or fraternity, country, cult, ethnic group, profession, sex, race, military branch, political party, pro or anti movement, or any other special interest group. And even though you may not want to admit it, it probably skews the way you look at the world. When events occur, you ask, even if you don’t formulate the words: is it good for us? Does it fit with my, or our view of the way things should be?

“The good part of being tribal is that you have fascinating rituals, beliefs and convictions. … The bad part of being tribal? There is generally a separation between us and them, and it is implied that “we” are superior to the others, or “we” see the truth and “they don’t.” Sometimes this sense of difference can be harmless, and other times it can be downright frightening and dangerous. In the former case, it may include particular ways of praying to and propitiating god or gods. In the latter case, it can lead to opening fire in a house of prayer or on a sports field because “they” are perceived as the enemy, and they need to be eliminated.”

Organization development experts write of both the positive and negative effects that tribal instincts can have on effective teamwork.

Michael McEwan (reference below) describes how to effectively harness “the tribal lesson” in building teams quickly:

“The Tribal Lesson works by placing people into a situation where they experience the “fight or flight” instinct, while being members of a newly formed and supportive team. The sequence of activity means that “fight” is the only realistic option and so – like members of a tribe faced by a threat – they respond by fighting for their team. When I say “fight” – they do fight, initially with plastic swords, but moving rapidly on to using metal fencing kit and protective clothing approved by the National Governing Body of the sport, and taught by World Class athletes and coaches. All the participants said they do feel the fear, especially in the first moments of facing an opponent trying to hit them with a metal sword! Nevertheless, they overcome it, and they do so with help from their teammates, not just with encouragement, but because they are incentivised to teach each other, what they themselves have only just learned.

“They learn all this in a matter of hours, because I am not trying to teach them how to be accomplished fencers – I am teaching them what they need to know to help each other and to fight effectively for their team. In doing so, they experience a seismic shift in understanding of what they are capable of achieving. This is more than going out of the comfort zone – this is entering into a zone many people do not realise they can reach! They are committing wholeheartedly to do what it takes to fight for their team – and in doing so, they reach a state that few people ever achieve. They are not just trying their hardest, not just doing their best – they go beyond this. Moreover, once beyond this, I get them to preserve that state – in Neuro-Linguistic Programming terms, to anchor it – so that they can recall it, bring it back into their present, and so behave and operate this way in the workplace, with any team. Once they do this, they evoke reactions from other people – they treat the team as their tribe, their family – as the people that matter most in the world – and their colleagues respond to this, and mirror this behaviour.”

This Solution (reference below) notes that tribal instincts can sometimes challenge team effectiveness:

“Membership in a group partly deprives the individual of the freedom he or she craves but has to sacrifice in order to be predictable in the group. Barriers form that hold members of the group in and separate them from foreign and unfamiliar groups. Sometimes what goes on in groups accomplishes tasks much better than individuals would. Sometimes the dynamics of the group are destructive and create inefficiency. Sometimes the very closeness within the group and the barriers between groups causes intellectual chaos and delusion.”


Nir Eyal (2013), Designing to Reward Our Tribal Sides, Psychology Today, 15 February 2013, at, accessed 13 October 2017.

Judith Fein (2014), What is Your Tribe? Psychology Today, 2 November 2014, at, accessed 13 October 2017.

Michael McEwan (2013), The Tribal Lesson – A New Route to Effective Teamwork, Integral Leadership Review, at, accessed 13 October 2017.

This Solution (2017), How to Make Teamwork Work, Blog, 14 April 2017, at Civil Service (2015), Civil Service Leadership Statement, at, accessed 13 October 2017.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Leadership and Communication (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 13 October 2017.

Image: This Solution (2017), How to Make Teamwork Work, Blog, 14 April 2017, at Civil Service (2015), Civil Service Leadership Statement, at, accessed 13 October 2017.