Labor
December 29, 2016

Use Tribal Nature to Build Group Dynamics

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Any dairy farm with a large number of employees has groups of workers designated to accomplish certain tasks. There are milkers, feeders, breeders, calf caretakers, maternity ward personnel, field workers, etc. These groups may work independently of each other but together they work toward the success of the business as a whole.

An affinity for being involved in groups is part of our basic biology, part of the human evolutionary process. Think of how many groups you are involved in, both personally and professionally, that aspire to accomplish a common goal.

Given that group membership is such a deeply rooted part of human nature and organizational success, researchers say that a central element of leadership is the management of group identities. In a Harvard Business Review article, Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University and Dominic Packer, an associate professor of psychology and associate dean of research at Lehigh University, say great leaders embrace basic human tribal nature and seek to shape the identity of their fellow group members.

Van Bavel and Packer say that when a person starts to identify with a group, it triggers a fundamental shift in their goals. Evaluations turn from what’s best for them to what’s best for the group as a whole. “Once their self becomes fused with the group, they are motivated to pursue what they understand to be the goals of the group,” researchers say.

Experiments have shown that members of a group will act to benefit their groups, even when doing so exacts a personal cost. Van Bavel and Packer say one reason is because group members share in the success and rewards with other in-group members—basking in their reflected glory and feeling pleasure when they receive a reward. As such, the researchers say the key to leading groups is fostering an environment in which individual group members deeply identify with the team.

To cultivate a strong group identity, Van Bavel and Packer say leaders can take the following steps:

  1. Focus on employees’ social needs. Incentive programs are popular on dairy farms that reward employees for reaching any number of goals. But the researchers say great leaders also fulfill the social needs of their employees. That includes balancing individuals’ needs to belong with their desire to stand out or be distinct.
  2. Set superordinate goals. In many organizations loyalty lies with an employees’ specific group rather than the organization as a whole. While healthy competition between departments can drive people to work harder, employees can lose sight of organizational goals. Van Bavel and Packer say that visionary leaders communicate the superordinate goals of the organization and explain how all the separate groups need to work together to achieve common goals.
  3. Reward collective and individual effort. Van Bavel and Packer say that leaders need to reward behavior that advances the goals of the group rather than the individual, providing bonuses, raises, etc. based on the entire team’s performance. Individual rewards should be given to individuals who make important contributions to the team’s success. Combining individual and collective rewards can promote stronger group identity and ensure that individual members are encouraged and motivated to pursue the team’s goals.

The bottom line, according to Van Bavel and Packer, is that leaders need to understand and harness the tribal psychology that is deeply imprinted onto the human brain. “The ease with which people categorize the social world into groups speaks to our nature,” the researchers say, “and provides a powerful potential tool for leaders.”  

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