The trouble with lies: How to avoid the downside of tribalism

BY: Susan Fowler

PUBLISHED: November 24, 2020

Initially posted on SmartBrief, November 24, 2020

Stare at the illustration above, focusing on the red dot in the center of the blue circle. Within 30 seconds, you will experience the Troxler effect — the blue circle disappears until all you see is the red dot amid a field of white. The illusion demonstrates that everything else in the periphery fades away when our brain fixates on a priority.

Troxler’s fading illusions are an apt metaphor for the downside of tribes. If you’re a member of a tribe focused only on what’s good for the tribe, you lose any sense of the greater community — and how your tribe either contributes to or damages the world around you.

We’ve seen this playing out as political tribalism has overflowed into society at large, eroding relationships and threatening to tear the strongest threads in the fabric of democracy. How can we ensure a tribal focus within our organizations doesn’t do the same?

3 leadership imperatives for tribes to thrive

The purpose of a tribe is to create a space for its members to thrive. Since we know that thriving requires satisfying three psychological needs, the best tribes promote choice, connection and competence for all its members. The worst tribe leaders think they’re providing psychological safety for their members when they are doing just the opposite.

Create tribal choice instead of using fear, threats and power to garner cooperation

In his book “Eleven Rings,” Phil Jackson, the legendary basketball coach for the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, described his efforts to turn a team into a tribe, where the players are unselfishly dedicated to the team’s success. He also describes the odd man out, Dennis Rodman, who didn’t play by the tribe’s rules. 

How did that work?

Jackson didn’t force the tribe to accept Rodman; he gave them the choice of playing with him and his weird ways or without him. Team co-captains Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen led the tribal meeting, where their teammates agreed they’d rather play with him, even if it meant Dennis being Dennis.

Jackson understands what too many prominent business, political, and sports leaders don’t: Leadership based on power and intimidation, fear, pressure, threats, anger or hatred of other tribes erodes people’s sense of autonomy. Such leadership ploys may work in the short run but are destined to fail over time, as history always shown.

Create tribal connection instead of sowing divisiveness and building community through competition with other tribes

People join tribes and gangs to feel a sense of belonging. But thriving depends on the psychological need for connection: genuine relationships without ulterior motives, alignment of goals to values and noble purpose, and contributing to the greater good.

CEO Garry Ridge loves to talk about his WD-40 Tribe. How does he make the tribe thing work? Crystal-clear values dedicated to the welfare of all. Garry doesn’t promote an insular tribe of “us versus them.” Rather, the welfare of all means those outside the tribe, too.

Garry leads an organization of ambassadors — tribal members dedicated to sharing their love of their company and its products. That may sound corny, but when a leader has an authentically loving heart, the tribe’s energy isn’t focused internally on the red dot, with everything else in the periphery fading away.

Just the opposite: The tribe member’s goal is not to bring others into the tribe, but for the tribe to share their values, products, and services with the world (literally).

Business and organizational leaders need to refrain from emulating political tribal leadership. When tribe members celebrate someone in an opposing tribe testing positive for COVID-19 or join in chants of  “lock her up,” they may feel a sense of camaraderie, but it’s a false sense of connection because their intent is demeaning or divisive. Focusing on the red dot without recognizing the negative impact to the community at large, they fail to recognize this truth about connection: What they do to others, they do to themselves.

Create tribal competence instead of promoting tribal epistemology

David Roberts’ perspective on Vox about tribal mindsets caught my attention. He was commenting on political tribalism and conspiracy theories, but I found his ideas particularly relevant to business and organizational leadership. Referring to the limited and overly biased data and information flowing into a tribe, he writes:

“Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. ‘Good for our side’ and ‘true’ begin to blur into one.


The primary institutions of society — government, academia, science, and media, which used to be seen as impartial authorities — can be rejected if they contradict your tribe’s worldview. ‘Truth,’ then, is whatever the tribal rhetoric says it is.”

Interesting. Thriving requires satisfying the psychological need for competency: the ability to effectively manage everyday challenges, demonstrate skill over time, and continuous learning and growth. If a workplace culture focuses too much on its internal messaging (staring at the red dot), how can it possibly be a learning organization? How can tribe members navigate the world around them if the truth of the world isn’t forthcoming?

Leaders need to be dedicated to transparency, truth-telling, and exploring a plurality of ideas and perspectives—not just their own—if their tribe is to create the competence to thrive.

Learning the right lessons

Political and sports leaders are the most visible and potentially influential in our society. But leaders need to observe and learn the right lessons. Business and organizational leaders have more direct interaction and opportunity to influence the quality of people’s daily experience.

More than ever, we need moral leaders with the awareness and ability to create tribes that thrive through choice, connection and competence — not just for the sake of the tribe, but for the world that encompasses the tribe.

(Image credit: Susan Fowler)

Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing” Her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard.

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