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by Bob Dearing

This is a great post from my friend Bob Dearing at

First, what is a tribe?

A tribe is commonly described as group of people that are connected to each other with an acknowledged leader and shared common ideals or set of mutual goals.

If you are looking for a tribal example you don’t need to look too far.  Turn on your TV, watch the news, and listen to the language of the political parties. They both have their own ideals, speak the same language and have their own leadership.  There are many other examples of tribes from sports teams, religious groups, business groups and more.

Like culture, tribes are all around us and we are all members of a tribe or tribes.   As humans, we have a very strong need to be in a tribe. It is part of our makeup, it’s in our DNA, since we all want to be a part of and contribute to a group of like-minded people.  Tribes in business form strong entities and contribute greatly to the success of their company.  Tribal behavior is a major contributor to shaping company culture, good or bad.   

Tribes need and flourish with strong effective leadership.  Without it, a tribe can become complacent and slip into a “status quo” mode.  When this happens members of the tribe are closed to new ideas and progress can be severely affected. The other side of that scenario occurs if the tribe begins to separate itself into “departmental cells” that develops their own language and communication style.   Neither situation is desirable and must be closely monitored by leadership.

Can Tribal Language Change?

John Mauldin, in his March 2018 “Outside the Box” newsletter points out the good and bad traits of tribes within a business organization.  When companies are small, or in early stages of development, the focus is clear, and the tribal language is understood by everyone including the customer.  With growth comes added complexity and organizations sometimes rely on outside experts to help make decisions based on their knowledge and experience.  That input comes with a price.  It comes with the expert’s biases, assumptions and processes and can change the tribal community language. Spread that over departments with different experts and an organization runs the risk of creating different languages across marketing, merchandising, sales and product. The result is communication soon becomes much more difficult internally and even more difficult externally.

As businesspeople we have all participated in meetings where different departments from the tribe make presentations to the group.   Departmental presentations can be confusing when the message is translated into the language of a specific department.  Technical terms used within the department may be clearly understood in its area but not within the collective tribe. The assumption being that all language is universally translatable and therefore consistent with the company style and goal.  Doesn’t always work that way! There are some words or terms that simply don’t have a direct crossover when translated. Therein lies the problem of speaking different languages. Sometimes the message can simply not be translated directly which blurs understanding and alignment over time. It is up to management to assume the role of translator-in-chief so that the message to the customer is understood and transmitted seamlessly.   

What does this mean to the customer?

If the different departments within your company tribe begin to speak in different languages the result is mixed, confusing, and inconsistent messages to your customer.  Changes in business techniques and technology advances are understandable and a part of today’s world. Translating these changes to the customer is the issue and that responsibility falls on management.  The difficulty is finding a way to slow and then translate the data flow to a level that is more easily understood by business owners and managers. The goal is to demonstrate how this massive flow of information helps them grow sales and improve profitability.

Managing the flow

We live in a digital world that is always on and the tidal wave of information is never ending.  Everyone is competing for the time and attention of the customer and the assault is relentless.   For entrepreneurs who are trying to make a living and keep up with day-to-day happenings in their business, the digital world is far too complex to understand as it comes at them like a wide-open fire hose. Unfiltered data is simply that, unfiltered data.  It is of little use until it is filtered and converted to usable and timely information. If you want to be important to your customer give them information and not data.   

The reality is most companies are experts at what they do, and their business plan is well executed from a technical standpoint. The problem is it is not well communicated downstream. To be successful in today’s world, it is our job to find a way to simplify very complex information in terms understood by individuals who are not digital experts or not in our tribe.

Avoiding “Expert Blindness”

The digital world provides incredible advantages. Technology has become so sophisticated that most companies now know more about their customer than ever before. They know everything from what they do for a living all the way down to when to expect them to make a purchase. This, however, may not be enough! Could we possibly think we know everything we need to know and miss the real point? In a recent study of car dealers, the experts at selling cars, had almost no idea what motivates car buyers to make a purchase.  Is it possible that we know so much about the customer that we have lost sight of the most crucial key…motivation? Mauldin calls this “expert blindness”.

It’s a bi-lingual opportunity

What does all this have to do with tribes? The fact is we are all members of tribes and in many ways speak different languages. The customer is no different.  He too is a tribal member, just not your immediate tribe. To communicate with each other the simple answer is, of course, to speak to your customers in their language.  That may seem to be easier said than done however understanding your customers tribal needs, wants, and desires is a major first step in becoming a bi-lingual partner


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