Ablade Glover, Market I, 2010, oil on canvas, 122 x 122cm, photo Jonathan Greet, Image courtesy October Gallery London
Ideas for Leaders #172

Modern Tribes – Managing Diversity and Identity

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Key Concept

Understand modern tribalism in today’s business world and how you can manage it for the good of your organization.

Idea Summary

The term “tribalism” was coined by sociologist Michel Maffesoli in the 1980s to explain a shift in Western society from one built around the individual to a world populated by “affective communities” where individuals, driven by the emotional bonds of these communities, seek to belong and feel useful. They identify with a group – or groups – they feel akin to.

Understanding these various identities is essential in the business world, because individuals are so much more aware of the choices they now have, whether it is choosing the right job, or buying the best service or product. This new kind of tribalism, ‘neotribalism’, is giving identity in the 21st century a different meaning. It is no longer simply about race, gender or culture, it is about movement, choice and aspiration in an increasingly unpredictable world.

There is an increasing awareness of who we are as individuals, and of the control we can have over multiple identities and destinies.  We can belong to many communities outside our identities of origin, with myriad social networks that link us to like-minded individuals. Whatever our leanings, whether environmental, spiritual, sport- or health-based, there are new ways of being together, which lead to new ways of working and consuming.

The challenge for leaders is to adapt their organisations, developing practices that allow employees to work within their multiple identities and social networks, and offering products and services to clients and customers that are better suited to this changed environment. 

Business Application

Leaders must constantly reinvent themselves and their companies to cater for changing communities, adapting products and services as customers demand. As far as employees are concerned, leaders should foster individuality and independent thinking while encouraging the sense of belonging to a community.

  • Be mindful of employees’ desire for a meaningful life. Research suggests that increasing numbers of staff are looking for self-fulfilment and self-development in their career choices. It is no longer simply about how much money they can earn, individuals consider the ethos of a company, whether its values coincide with theirs, whether their ideas will be listened to, and so on.
  • Offer a range of self-development courses, or use mentors, so that employees can follow their own personal development preferences and decide what they need. The choice is theirs.
  • Encourage new ideas. Many of your staff belong to internet communities that feed their desires to develop initiatives, whether it’s a new business idea or a setting up a special interest group. Harness the energy they expend on such activities outside the office by encouraging entrepreneurial ideas at work, and building a spirit of creativity and communication.
  • Manage diversity. Race, gender, and cultural issues are still key for companies, particularly in terms of understanding what is missing for certain groups and how improvements can be made. IBM, for example, has strong links with many external partners such as the National Society for Black Engineers, or the Society of Women Engineers. It uses its links with these bodies to attract new talent and develop effective inclusion strategies within its own organisation.
  • Recognise that employees can belong to lots of different networks. By engaging with external communities like Facebook, or other employee networks that might focus on hobbies or interests, leaders can discover the latest tendencies and gain useful feedback. A good example of this is Nike. By developing its ‘running communities’ it has created an identity bond that has not only strengthened loyalty but has also helped it develop its products – it can read at first hand what runners are looking for when it comes to buying trainers.
  • Consider your client/supplier relationships – what are their identities and aspirations? Do they buy your products and services because of the way you build and process them? Whether it is fair trade initiatives, or projects with local communities…your corporate offering needs to stand the test of scrutiny from increasingly discerning clients and suppliers.
  • Examine the marketing function. Your market is much more complex and your people are much more complex than they used to be. When dealing with employees or customers, whether consumer or business to business, look beyond the traditional diversity metrics of race, gender etc and see what other factors might be influencing them. What interests them, what networks do they belong to…remember that these other factors can be well-developed and powerful.
  • Take the example of baby products – once a fairly standard approach to marketing such consumables might be sufficient. Now you need to look at the various communities within the traditional market, perhaps childminder groups considering the benefits of one brand over another, or those seeking only paraben-free products. The permutations are manifold.

The world has more fluidity in it. Professionals do not have to stay in the same job, or company or career even. Leaders need to be aware that individuals can develop multiple identities, and satisfy different motivations, many of which are based on a desire for a better world. Work at communicating with your employees, clients, and suppliers, and you will gain their affiliation. If you don’t, you risk them working, buying, or sourcing elsewhere.

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Idea conceived

  • December 2012

Idea posted

  • July 2013

DOI number




Beyond Tribalism, De Anca, C., IE Business Publishing and Palgrave Macmillan ISBN 978-0-230-27694-9

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