What Makes for a “Healthy Tribe?”

Tribal beliefs and behaviors have kept us going for millennia. Safety in numbers and dependable social supports are key to human health and survival. In this day of philosophical divides, however, our tribal tendencies seem to be going awry:

  • Our differences from other “tribes” get overemphasized, and we lose track of our common ground.
  • We may deify those who agree with our own philosophy and vilify those holding alternative views, ultimately alienating ourselves from one another.
  • We stop evaluating the world around us for ourselves, instead automatically accepting the group’s concept of reality–which often becomes more and more extreme and unrealistic.
  • Our sense of selfhood suffers, and self-confidence struggles.
  • Problem solving for issues that impact both sides becomes impossible.

This deterioration process is commonly called “groupthink.” It can result in groups eventually crashing and burning, as happened with Watergate, the space shuttle disaster, the Waco compound shootout, and Jonestown’s infamous poison Kool-aid.

However, this philosophy-based tug-of-war need not be inevitable. Leaders and members alike can promote healthy tribes by using practices that help overcome the fear response’s excessive influence. Susan Fowler describes them as three C’s: choice, connection, and competence:

CHOICE: “Create tribal choice instead of using fear, threats and power to garner cooperation.”

Encouraging people to make good use of their own ideas and decision-making can bring new strengths and possibilities to the group, rather than let an over-engaged fear response slowly erode them away.

CONNECTION: “Create tribal connection instead of sowing divisiveness and building community through competition with other tribes.”

Comradery primarily based on trashing the other guy provides only a shallow, fleeting sense of connection. Emphasis on working together for the greater good and seeking common goals promotes more genuine feelings of connection and purpose, as well as greater meaning in life.

COMPETENCE: “Create tribal competence instead of promoting tribal epistemology.”

Productive group members feel competent to demonstrate their skills, work toward solving problems, and continue to learn and grow. Exploring multiple ideas and possibilities, rather than pushing the status quo and being shielded from alternative perspectives, makes for a tribe that truly thrives.

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