How a Strong Tribal Identity Can Bind Your Team Together

by Edmond Lau

Photo credit: Pascal

The other day, I had a conversation with a friend about how to keep great people excited about staying on a team. The issue isn’t just an important one for managers. Even as individual contributors, most of us would also like to create the type of environment where we’re excited to come to work every day.

Many teams know to focus on hiring great people, and they spend large amounts of time and resources sourcing new candidates, recruiting at career fairs, flying promising candidates out for interviews, interviewing potential hires, and debriefing to make hiring decisions. Hiring great people is difficult, but it’s also high leverage.

What can be even more important, however, is keeping great people on the team and reducing what human resources calls “regrettable attrition.” Regrettable attrition refers to losing those employees that the organization had wanted to retain. Given how much energy is spent hiring and training people, the value of keeping someone great on the team can easily exceed the value of hiring someone new for the same role. It can take months for someone new to come close to the productivity levels of an experienced team member and even more time to build up the same levels of institutionalized knowledge needed to get things done effectively. Moreover, the loss of a crucial team member can be a big blow to morale for the rest of the team.

So how can we keep great people on a team? There are many reasons why someone might choose to leave. Compensation, philosophical differences, lack of growth opportunities, and poor management are just a few factors. But one of the key factors that sometimes gets overlooked is the strength of social ties on the team. The strongest teams don’t just consist of people who find each other tolerable and easy to work with. They comprise people who are interested in each other’s well-being, who actually enjoy each others’ company, and who share a common mission and set of core values. They identify as being a member of the tribe.

The Power of Tribal Membership

In their book Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan and his co-authors explain how they studied 24,000 people across 25 organizations over 10 years to understand how individuals behave as part of belonging to different groups. They classify every group as belonging to 1 of 5 stages of tribal development, ranging from a violent gang at stage 1 to a noble group striving for global impact at stage 5. 1

Most companies and organizations sit at stage 3. In a stage 3 tribe, smart and successful individuals focus on themselves and operate with an “I’m great” attitude. They look for ways to be better than and “one-up” their co-workers. They ask to be cc’ed on all emails so that they can be in the loop, and they hoard information because they believe that knowledge is power. They focus on time management and efficiency because they rely primarily on themselves to get things done. They manage rather than lead. People leave a stage 3 tribe when they find a better opportunity.

Transitioning to stage 4 shifts the mindset of “I’m great” to “We’re great.” A shared set of core values unites the tribe and aligns members toward a common mission. Successful individuals, rather than focusing on how to get ahead, focus on tribal goals. The energy from fellow co-workers gets them excited to come to work every day. Everyone is motivated to continuously improve and evolve the workplace toward a place they would want to work in the long run. Building a stage 4 tribe takes work, but once people feel like they belong to a team that gels well, it’s hard for them to leave.

Research backs up the importance of strong tribal membership and social ties in creating a culture where people want to stay. The Gallup organization found in a 25-year survey of over 1 million employee across 400 organizations that two of the strongest indicators of a great workplace are that employees could say, “I have a best friend at work” and “someone at work seems to care about me as a person.” 2 3 Those social indicators rank as highly as other traditional measures of workplace satisfaction like the company’s mission, clear job expectations, personal recognition, and professional growth.

It might seem surprising that being friends with co-workers would play such a large role, but the desire to not let your friends and teammates down is a powerful motivator. The one all-nighter I ever pulled in seven years for work happened in the early days of Quora, when a widespread Amazon outage took down the product for over a day. 4 The team spent all night repairing data inconsistencies. Staying up to work on damage control wouldn’t have been my first choice for a fun night, but letting down my friends and co-workers would have been unconscionable.

When I reflect back to the times in my career where the notion of leaving a team didn’t even occur to me, they almost always centered around a strong sense of team identity. They were times where a teammate’s energy and excitement would feed into the rest of team’s, and where the positive feedback loop made each of us more excited to work toward the company’s greater mission than if we had just worked alone. Social ties can be a strong bonding force.

Interview for Tribal Fit

The takeaway from these observations is that establishing a strong tribal identity to bind people together can be a powerful way to keep great people on your team.

Among other things, that means:

  • Defining the core values for your team and using those values to drive decision-making.
  • Creating opportunities for people to work together. It’s harder to strengthen social ties when everyone works within their own silos.
  • Ensuring that new people fit into the tribe so that values are maintained and even strengthened as the team grows.

It’s important to define the core values for your team and to ensure that new people fit into the tribe so that values are maintained and even strengthened as the team grows. Most teams refer to this quality as “culture fit,” but tribal fit might be a more apt name. Unfortunately, the notion of tribal fit can also be notoriously hard to gauge during interviews.

Technical skills can often be measured objectively. An algorithmic solution either meets design requirements, or it doesn’t; many programming challenges can even be scored in an automated fashion. But how do you measure whether someone is a strong tribal fit, and how do you weigh that against technical aptitude? Does the team even agree on what values are important? These questions are much harder to answer, but no less important.

Some teams try to explicitly gauge tribal fit during interviews with questions around values. Airbnb, for example, devotes 2-3 of its engineering interviews toward evaluating core values. Other teams just check to make sure a candidate would gel well with the rest of the team. The payments startup Stripe, for instance, screens interview candidates using what they call the Sunday test: “if this person was alone in the office on a Sunday, would that make you more likely to come in just to hang out with him?” 5 Kevin Gibbs, the creator of Google App Engine and Google Suggest and a co-founder of Quip, discusses a similar concept that he calls a “feeling of family” in a blog post on how to keep great people on a team. “Feeling like a family means that you feel a real, emotional, connection with your teammates,” Gibbs writes. “[It] means having co-workers that you’d like to spend an afternoon with, even if you didn’t have any work to do.” 6

When a friend was starting a new company, one of the first things he did with his co-founders was to formulate a shared set of core values that they would use to make decisions. He found that this exercise helped to align everyone toward what the long-term aim of the company would be. The team’s identity may evolve as it grows, but defining it early on can help shape its trajectory.

When you get the tribal fit right, the strong cultural identity around shared core values can provide several benefits, including:

  • Binding people together on the team.
  • Attracting new people who share similar core values to the tribe.
  • Providing a shared framework for effectively making decisions.

Palantir co-founder Stephen Cohen, in a guest lecture at Stanford, described culture as “the super-structure to choose and channel people’s energies in the right direction.” 7 And that highlights the power that a good culture provides.

Perhaps the most inspiring story of the power of a strong tribe comes from Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness. Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, grew the online shoe store over 10 years from unprofitability to over $1 billion in revenue by the time Amazon acquired the company for $1.2 billion in 2009. Toward the end of 2003, the initially San Francisco-based company was having trouble hiring good people. Most people in the Bay Area weren’t excited to work in a call center. And because Zappos’s brand centered around customer service, they neither wanted to outsource their call center overseas to India or to the Phillipines, nor did they want customer service to be relegated to a satellite office. After much deliberation, Hsieh announced at a company meeting that the company headquarters was moving to Las Vegas.

The most amazing part? The sense of tribal identity was so strong that 70 out of 90 employees decided to uproot their lives and move with the company. It’s hard to imagine many companies today that would be able to pull something like that off. But imagine how powerful your tribe must be if you could.


“A comprehensive tour of our industry's collective wisdom written with clarity.”

— Jack Heart, Engineering Manager at Asana

“Edmond managed to distill his decade of engineering experience into crystal-clear best practices.”

— Daniel Peng, Senior Staff Engineer at Google

“A comprehensive tour of our industry's collective wisdom written with clarity.”

— Jack Heart, Engineering Manager at Asana

“Edmond managed to distill his decade of engineering experience into crystal-clear best practices.”

— Daniel Peng, Senior Staff Engineer at Google

Grow Your Skills Beyond the Book

Listen to podcast interviews with top software engineers and watch master-level videos of techniques previously taught only in workshops and seminars.

Leave a Comment