Thursday, 6 December 2012


Tribalism in the workplace can be visible or invisible, both generous, necessary, in fact desirable and of course dangerous.  However let’s not forget that tribalism is natural, inherent and either choice or force driven as in social forces and most “belong” and if it’s not a club then there are affiliations, birth tribes, clans and more.

Locally tribalism is everywhere; we cannot blame our politicians for dividing us along tribal lines because the same vice has found its way to our workplaces. Go to government offices, multinationals, midsized companies and the small entities to start ups you’ll have it. In smaller companies and start ups there’s a tendency by the business owner to first hire his immediate family members (Wife, Son, Daughter, cousin etc) as they launch the business. If they didn’t do that the business owner probably hired a friend or asked his/her friends to recommend a few guys for the positions he had vacant. This is how it all begins, slowly you find all or three quarters of your staff come from one community. Reasons vary among different business owners, you all know those stereotypes; Wakikuyu na pesa hapana, wakamba ni wachawi, watu wa coast ni wazembe, wameru wana hasira mingi, wajaluo ni watu wa kelele na unions etc.
For one reason or the other you preferred to hire ‘your people’ from GEMA community, or the Lake region. Let’s not dwell on that, if these people perform well in their tasks and roles then they deserved the jobs.
Today we would like to focus on the dangers of hiring along tribal lines.

1.      Difficulty in attracting talent
If 60 % of the employees in your company are from one tribe then mostly the company is seen more like a tribal entity. People from other tribes will not even attempt to apply for jobs there should they feel they don’t stand a chance of getting hired. Most graduates for example rush to multinationals for their multi cultural setting with employees from diverse backgrounds, nations and cultures. The point we are driving here is you need to have a balanced workforce, in as much as the owner/directors may all come from one or two tribes ensure you hire employees from various tribes so that the employees co-exist without looking at each other as X from tribe Y rather work together for the greater good of the company.

2.      Kills Team Work & Synergy
Employees from minority tribe may feel uncomfortable fitting into a team or department which has majority of its members from one community. Once in a while vernacular finds its way to the meetings, jokes are shared in our mother tongue and thus a few members of that department may feel unwanted. When people cannot work as a team, tasks take longer to complete, work lacks flow leading to inefficiency and thus lesser productivity. Should you find this happening already take that team to an outdoor team bonding session to re-create team dynamics missing. 

3.      Leads to divisions in the company.
And how many times have you heard or witnessed in a meeting when someone says… What’s HR doing here? Or perhaps in a Sales meeting when someone asks; why is Finance here?  Or….That department is useless, it hasn’t done anything worthwhile, it lets us down. That could be tribalism at play!
Once in a while managers favour, promote, and add salaries and fringe benefits to employees from their tribes while others are sidestepped. These do happen in our workplaces however they could really divide workers and this will certainly lead to conflicts. When people start identifying themselves by tribes in an organization then you need to take corrective actions to unite them. You could rotate jobs, transfer others, promote or organize frequent get together to unite the staff again as well as FIRE some!

4.      Kills Professionalism & Healthy Corporate Culture
Culture is the competitive advantage. This is a call to all leaders, CEO’s, Directors and such. It’s about you, your people, culture, leadership, core values and vision. The culture of an entity really matters a lot to the success of the entity. The values, morals, mission and vision of the company may not be adhered to should there be preference to members of a certain group to another. When rules, guidelines and regulations cannot be followed to the letter then the level of professionalism goes down the drain. Some employees become untouchables, report to work late, leave early, delegate all the work etc are some of the tendencies that crop up. When this happens a few people become overworked, demotivated and dissatisfied with their work. At this point a few disgruntled employees will protest, seek other jobs, others will keep quiet and under perform while others will join in. In a few months time the company’s culture is dead and the firm is reporting losses!  

5.      Lowers Employee Morale.
How does it feel when you know that promotions aren’t awarded on merit; hard work, skills, experience or level of education? Bad, right? When certain employees realize there’s tribalism at play in the workplace employee morale then dies, cleverer employees will start lobbying for support from people in control of their fate (HR department) while others will just sit back and lose hope! Employees then show lack of energy, enthusiasm and passion that they had before. When the problem gets to this point then it becomes a case of “do your work I am doing mine”. Employees don’t strive to go beyond their targets, lack drive to go the extra mile and their performance becomes just okay, better known as satisfactory. In a mid sized organization that is seeking to grow and venture into new markets or regions then their expansion plans become a pipe dream. 

My advice to you is to be keen on who you hire. Don’t make your firm a tribal outfit for the good of the organization.
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