Our tribal identities govern our decision making, but change requires more than that

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By Bob Bailly tribalmarketing

My reading over the last several weeks has been all over the map, from political parties entrenching in unsupportable positions in Canada and the US, to the neuroscience of leadership. While I’ll discuss more about this later, it was at a board meeting of a not-for-profit that I attended last week that I finally was able to see a thread connecting my readings and what I was observing.

The meeting concerned the introduction of a new name and identity for the organization – a need clearly outlined as a priority in the organization’s strategic plan. The meeting shifted from the ordinary, however, because in the process of doing this work, there was a major disconnect between stakeholders. While the discussion was supposed to be about the rebranding, it quickly centred on the intent, tone and function of the new name that had already been approved. In fact, not only was a previously approved decision of the board being questioned, staff morale was in jeopardy and emotions were running high.

The particulars beyond this are unimportant and all the issues were ultimately resolved. But it was in this resolution that an ah-ha moment hit me. Most of what I was reading, hearing and now experiencing had tribal roots, but there was also something else going on that intrigued me.

I’ve written extensively about how I believe that much of how we behave in the business world can be informed by the science of evolution, and I’ve explored a number of ideas to improve marketing, sales and communication based upon findings from neuroscience and psychology. But over the last couple of years, I’ve also written several blog posts about what anthropology and sociology can teach us about our desire to live and work in tribal settings. My ah-ha moment came to me when I realized that our tribal desires also have strong neurological underpinnings.

Marketing guru Seth Godin has written a number of books on the topic of tribal marketing and appears regularly on the speaking circuit with a simple message that can be paraphrased as, “find a tribe and lead it.” He believes marketing is all about tribes: not market segments, not brands, not advertising.

So what is a tribe?

I define a tribe as any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another through a common vision about who they are, are led by a leader and an idea, share common stories, symbols and icons to identify themselves as members, and are held together by emotional attachments to all of the above.

I highlight emotional attachments because some people may assume that market segments, stakeholder groups or communities always fit the bill. Not so.

In my mind, Trevor Lohrbeer, CEO and co-founder of Lab Escape got it right when he observed, “Markets are centred around needs and communication. (They involve) people who share common needs and talk to one another about those needs.” An example would be Apple computer aficionados.

“Communities are centered around shared ownership and mutual benefit. (They provide) stewardship of common resources and mutual aid to each other for the benefit of its members.” An example could be members of a housing cooperative.

“Tribes,” he goes on to write, “are about identity and culture. They are like markets because their members often share similar needs and talk to one another. But not always. They are like communities because their members often work to help each other out, and sometimes share ownership of common resources. But not always.

“The core of a tribe is culture and identity. A unique culture, and a strong identification with that culture creates a tribe. And tribes link people in ways that markets and communities don’t. Tribes create identity bonds between each other, even if those people don’t know each other.”

Which brings me back to the news reports about those political parties I had been reading. Fanatically devoted to their leaders, ideologically driven, partisan and emotionally driven, the core constituency of the Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals and NDP behave in a tribal fashion.

Tribes typically create a we-they set of beliefs that creates a boundary that delineates members from outsiders. According to Mr. Lohrbeer: “Shared beliefs, which are exclusive to the tribe, are a classic example of a boundary; heredity and formal membership are others.”

I’ll add shared experience to that list. In the case of the not-for-profit organization, its prime community shares a rare condition, often from birth, that creates an entirely different world view for them. While the rest of society likely considers their condition a disability, they view their world as normal and rankle at the suggestion they are disadvantaged. The organization’s services and expenses are largely directed to advocating for them.

However, to continue to grow the organization, at-risk groups that would suffer if they developed the same condition are also served by the organization, and it is this latter, and larger, subsection of the population that could provide great revenue potential for the organization.

The name and identity change was supposed to be strategically driven as a marketing effort – a move to exploit the revenue potential of at-risk groups while maintaining core services. Believed to be a tactical decision by staff, the core constituency, who actually describe themselves as a community, saw it as an end run. They reacted with fear, anger and betrayal because they felt the process used and the decision made was disrespectful to them.

Remarkably, it was another board member who finally described the issues we were facing as tribal, and it was as if a light went on for all the participants at the meeting. Indeed, it was from that moment that the issues began to be defused.

It was then that I realized what David Rock, a management consultant, and Jeffrey Schartz, a research psychiatrist, were writing about this in a terrific Strategy and Business article entitled, “The Neuroscience of Leadership.” They believe that understanding recent breakthroughs in cognitive science “can lead and influence organizational transformation, because it takes into account the physiological nature of the brain, and the ways in which it predisposes people to resist some forms of leadership and accept other.” Simplistically put, it’s fight or flight versus cognitive reasoning. Fascinating stuff, but in the interest of brevity and without the science here are some of their key findings.

  • Change is pain. Organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort.
  • Behaviourism doesn’t work. Change efforts based on incentive and threat — the carrot and the stick — rarely succeed in the long run.
  • Humanism is overrated. In practice, the conventional empathetic approach of connection and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people.
  • Focus is power. The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.
  • Expectation shapes reality. People’s preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive.
  • Attention density shapes identity. Repeated, purposeful and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.

Regarding my musing: I have a number of takeaways, but here are a few of interest.

First, reluctance to change is universal and affects organizations as well as people.

Second, if you tell someone something, his brain will push back.

And finally, if people are involved in a decision, they are more likely to adopt it.

On this final point, the science is simple. Because our brains are pattern-making organisms with an innate desire to create novel connections, when people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neuro-transmitters, like adrenaline. “The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change.”

Not good news for political masters or leaders bent on imposing their point of view. But great news for leaders of any tribe willing to allow their members to cultivate their own moments of insight and allow them to act on them.

Associate Bob Bailly is a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner. You can contact Bob at bobailly@telus.net.

Image: D-sight

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