How To Foster A Healthy Tribe

By Don Rheem

Consider our ancestors, hunting on the open savanna for big game that was larger, faster, and more ferocious than they were. Armed with nothing but spears and teamwork, ancient humans and proto-humans succeeded in taking down animals that could feed a whole tribe for a week at a time.

Working alone under these conditions was perilous and largely unsuccessful. From a brain-based perspective, facing death-defying, overwhelming odds, the companionless prefrontal cortex only functions in flight, fight, or freeze. Not exactly a winning action plan. Working cooperatively with other tribe members was the best way to diversify risk and leverage strategy and cunning over small size and limited strength.

Hunting with reliable others not only felt easier, it felt safer.

Mitigating the danger was the rest of the tribe—hunters literally had to watch each other’s backs. This was valuable to each individual and the tribe as a whole. Working together, the hunters made kills, celebrated together, and shared the spoils of their victory.

The Impact for Us Today

What does this have to do with us? Most of us don’t face daily mortal danger on the job, but our brains are still wired to detect it.

Most of us don’t face daily mortal danger on the job, but our brains are still wired to detect it. Click To Tweet

Any threat to our security, whether physical or emotional, prompts the same chemical reactions that bypass cognitive centers and create a heightened state of vigilance that robs mental resources from other brain functions. This results in reduced mental capacity, productivity and focus.

We all want someone to have our back, though no longer in matters of life and death. Our brains still crave collaboration, especially when facing challenges, and expect to participate in the validation and recognition felt in celebrating victory. We want to be a valued member of the tribe. 

The Hunter in the Workplace

Translate that to the workplace and it’s clear what employees need. Pay, benefits, and perks are important, but they don’t nourish our brains during the 40 hours or more each week we are in the workplace. We still crave safe and secure connections and being valued members of the tribe.

The challenge, then, for senior leadership is clear: create a workplace that mimics centuries of survival best practices, namely trusted, reliable relationships dedicated to a clearly understood collective mission and the more granular understanding of everyone’s personal role.

Here’s how:

  • Offer clarity – Establish a clear mission and communicate it. That way, every member of the tribe understands what he or she is working to achieve.
  • Foster relationships – We are hardwired as herd animals, so encourage reliable, health-giving relationships.
  • Give validation – Appreciate tribe members every day for the support they give each other.
  • Give recognition – Reward high performance with praise.
  • Build a relational culture – Create an atmosphere of camaraderie, where social networks are formed.
  • Prioritize – Make the construction of this culture a top priority for all levels of management.

A healthy tribe succeeds together—whether it’s hunting big game or big customers. Our ancestors showed us how to do it right.


Don Rheem is a former congressional science advisor, CEO, and author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures with ForbesBooks. Learn more at DonRheem.com.

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