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Is Tribalism Inevitable?

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Race and gender discrimination, paralyzing political partisanship, and dysfunctional organizations plagued by infighting are popping up in so many settings that it is tempting to conclude that tribalism is inevitable.

  • Racial profiling seems obvious in the Trayvon Martin murder case, so much so that President Obama was moved to tell the nation that he could have been Trayvon 35 years ago. My colleague Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School devoted his book Presumed Guilty to examples of judges, CEOs, scientists, and other top professionals pulled over by police for the crime of DWB -- driving while black.
  • The U.S. Congress has developed hardened positions by party lines and cannot agree on an immigration bill. Some Congressional Republicans have come close to admitting that defeating the other side is more important than action on important national issues.
  • Sexual harassment in the military has become so prevalent, and un-addressed by the men in power, that authority for dealing with it is being taken out of military hands.
  • In the business world, Microsoft recently announced a reorganization to counter divisional rivalries and get its act together as a more unified enterprise, implicitly blaming tribalism for recent stumbles.
  • In sports, losing teams fracture into sub-groups by position. The record-holder for the longest losing streak in collegiate football history was plagued by hostility between the offensive line and the defensive line, as I found in research for my book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.
  • At numerous summer camps, children divided randomly into groups for tournaments will quickly bond with their teammates and show hostility to the other teams. This was the finding of a classic experiment in social psychology. Groups of strangers are quick to find reasons that they are superior to the others.
  • In other, more serious, contests, rebels in parts of the Middle East, such as Syria, have trouble cooperating across squabbling factions, which weakens their ability to mount unified opposition.

Tribalism reflects strong ethnic or cultural identities that separate members of one group from another, making them loyal to people like them and suspicious of outsiders, which undermines efforts to forge common cause across groups. Visible differences make profiling even easier. Was it Trayvon Martin's black skin or his hoodie that triggered George Zimmerman's deadly pursuit?

Some social scientists say that in-group/out-group biases are hard-wired into the human brain. Even without overt prejudice, it is cognitively convenient for people to sort items into categories and respond based on what is usually associated with those categories, a form of statistical discrimination, playing the odds. Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banajee is a pioneer in the quick judgment school of research, arguing in Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People that stereotypes are pervasive and hard to overcome. It is one easy step from categories to pecking orders.

But it is important to not stop at analysis of unthinking instincts, lest we miss the other side of the story. Human nature also allows us to think our way out of blindspots. Tribalism is muted by other human creations, such as diverse communities with complex structures and more universalistic values. We call that civilization.

The triumph of civilization is to transcend cognitive biases. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that violence has been steadily decreasing through the centuries due to social changes that increase interconnectivity and understanding of other people. These include trade, population mobility, and communications media. He points to self-control, empathy, morality, and reason as the traits that counter primitive instincts. Perhaps reason has driven John McCain to attempt peace talks between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

When diversity is embraced and collaboration sought, productivity and creativity can be enhanced, as Harvard education professor Todd Pittinsky has argued in Us Plus Them. One key to getting the benefits is to normalize those who are different by stressing similarities, making them not-so-different after all. My research on how groups of mostly one social type treat people who are different, captured in my video fable A Tale of O: On Being Different, confirmed that it takes structural change -- vastly increasing numbers and points of contact -- to overcome casual biases. There are recent examples of such transcendence. Support for gay marriage has increased rapidly, and differences are now shrugged off in many countries as not that important, when everyone wants the same thing -- a committed relationship and possibly children.

Interdependence is an even a better tribalism-buster. Although mere contact doesn't erase fear and mistrust, a shared task that all parties care about replaces tribal instincts with other motivations. That works on the small group level and also for large-scale enterprises. For economic as well as social reasons, the companies I deal with want to avoid tribalism and become a unified force -- One Enterprise. Especially in areas of rapidly evolving technologies, closed groups are vulnerable to developments they don't see and can't participate in. Tribalism gets in the way of innovation. For Verizon, for example, One Verizon means striving for a culture in which landline departments, which could easily feel threatened by the success of wireless, and wireless departments, which could easily feel superior to old-fashioned landlines, instead communicate, exchange people, and pursue projects together.

Some companies manage to come close to the One Enterprise ideal by finding a common purpose that is inspiring and motivating, helping people transcend their differences. When backed up by incentives for achieving common goals, a sense of community helps override selfish interests. Codes of conduct help too, specifying community norms that should not be violated regardless of local traditions. As an IBM manager in India told me in a conversation about the company's global ethics code, "You cant have a wink-wink culture."

Culture often derives from structure. Societal and organizational structures account for the degree to which tribalism surfaces. Organizational structures that allow divisions and departments to own their turf and people with long tenure to take root creates the same hardened group distinctions as Congressional redistricting to produce homogeneous voting blocs -- all of which makes it easier to resist compromise, let alone collaboration. Contrast that with blurred boundaries that encourage coalition building in order to combine resources for mutually-beneficial initiatives, and a flow of people across them, so that everyone in the organization has multiple affiliations and has worked on numerous cross-sectional teams. This is also associated with higher levels of creativity and the flexibility to adapt to change. Prominent companies seeking innovation and growth, like the ones I write about in my book SuperCorp, also stress common values. They promote understanding of diverse people, and they support causes like gay marriage because they seek inclusiveness rather than divisiveness. This stems from leadership, but also from structures that encourage identification across the widest possible range, rather than focused on a small closed group. Future leaders are taught to think about how their products or pronouncements will be experienced by diverse constituencies and multiple ethnicities. It is hard to remain tribal when trying to be national, regional, and global.

Pluralism is the antidote to hard-and-fast differences that divide and harm. Tribes are a source of identity, but when people belong to many overlapping groups, they are more likely to think broadly, as cosmopolitans. When they work together in mix-and-match structures and depend on the performance of people from other groups for their own success, they are more likely to empathize with differences rather than mistrust them. Among the many arguments for universal military service or civilian national service is the leveling effect -- same uniform, same cause -- making differences less important than getting the job done. Now that women can engage in military combat, perhaps the vestiges of sexual harassment will fade there too.

Tribalism is not inevitable. We can civilize tendencies toward discrimination. But leaders must make it a priority.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a Harvard Business School Professor, founding Chair and Director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, and author of numerous bestsellers. Follow her on Twitter @RosabethKanter.