Gervase Bush, one of my favorite organizational development theorists, likes to talk about teams, tribes and federations. Here are his definitions:
- A team in the truest sense of the word is a group of people who are so task interdependent that they sink or swim together. We call many work groups “teams” who don’t actually meet this definition.
- A federation is a group of people, usually managers, who share common goals but have their own areas of responsibility. They compete for resources, and usually that means they don’t work very well together.
- A tribe is a group of people who aren’t task interdependent and thus don’t meet the strict definition of a team. Like a federation, they work toward the same overarching mission but they have their separate areas of responsibility. What distinguishes them from a federation, however, is that they have a strong sense of identity with the team and care about the group to the extent they they will look at the good of the whole before putting their own needs first. An extreme example of a tribe is a family. Each family member pursues their own work, recreation, education, etc. but they care so much about the family that they will sacrifice their own needs for the good of the group.
So what most organizations really want, Bushe says, when they call consultants and ask for team building, is to turn a federation into a tribe. That sense of identity with the team is the elusive thing that we know we want but can’t figure out how to get.
I think this is interesting on a personal level, because when I look back at my life, the best times have always been when I belonged to a tribe. It wasn’t always a work tribe; sometimes it was just a group of friends. What really distinguished it was that I was proud to be part of the group.
There was the tribe I belonged to in my first job, when I was a corporate HR director at a hotel company—my two colleagues and I slept, ate and breathed our work, spending most of our time outside of work with each other and sharing ideas (and drinking beer, of course). We had passion for what we were doing and we were great friends as well as colleagues.
Then there was the tribe of ski instructors I hung out with for a few years when I taught skiing, and most recently the mountain rescue team I belonged to (which was truly a team but also had all the best qualities of a tribe). Once again, what distinguished us was a shared passion for what we were doing and a sense of pride in the group.
What was hardest for me when I moved from Colorado back to New Hampshire last year is that I lost my tribe, and I haven’t found a new one yet. What does one do, run an ad in the personals reading, “single white female seeking a new tribe”?
As consultants who work from home, people like me have a distinct disadvantage in finding a group to bond with. We often have to look outside the traditional work-related sources to find one. But on the positive side, I have the ability to go out and help other work groups become tribes. And when I’m successful, that’s the greatest reward of all.