The Coalition Instinct in Humans

by Don Rheem

We don’t get to choose what kind of life we’re born into. We don’t get to choose our families, our ethnic groups, or our birth nation. We’re born into these “memberships”—being American, for example—with no say and no obligation to remain, although most of us tend to form bonds with our family, community, and country.

We also develop connections, though less intimate, with colleges, causes, and competitions (how passionate are you toward your favorite sports team?) These affinity bonds can be just as or more compelling than the familial. We may be born into certain communities, but as we get older these forged groups become powerful influencers of our behavior. Especially in the workplace we see what is called “coalitional instinct” at play.

When the Bonds are Voluntary

A “coalitional instinct” is very similar to the kinds of bonds of created out of the communities we’re born into that I mentioned above, but relates more specifically to the voluntary bonds created within “coalitions,” groups created with distinct, separate individuals.

These coalitions are “sets of individuals interpreted by their members… as sharing a common abstract identity, including propensities to act as a unit, to defend joint interests, and to have shared mental states and other properties of a single human agent,” according to evolutionary psychologist John Tooby. Coalitions form when different people with different backgrounds come together for a unifying cause, such as in a workplace. In the research around “adult attachment,” sources of these compelling behavioral bonds range from connections with other team members, a leader, the job itself, and with the mission and vision of the organization.

The instinct to connect with a group is hardwired into our brains, as early humans sought coalitions to assert dominance, protect themselves, and compete for limited resources. There’s strength in numbers, after all. Each of us is a descendant of those who succeeded by forming the largest and most cohesive groups. Consequently, there can be significant tensile strength in the bonds formed through these coalitions because members choose instinctively to herd together.

Coalitional Instinct in the Workplace

Most of us spend the majority of our time at work. Employees working for a common goal in shared conditions can develop powerful connections that supersede the actual work. These connections may be social, even intimate.

It is incumbent upon business leaders to foster the growth of coalitions, or tribes, because they can be a powerful positive force in the workplace, and an important extrinsic reward that workers derive from their employment. When senior leadership promotes an environment of trust and caring endemic to a functional tribe, their employees, like their early human ancestors, will perform better when working in cohesive groups.

Helping employees find common meaning in their work intensifies the connection members of the tribe—employees—have with each other and with the business. Regular communication about the company mission can clarify and reinforce the value of the work.

Action Steps:

  • Foster the growth of coalitions in the workplace as a driver of engagement among employees.
  • Help employees find higher purpose in their work as another driver of engagement. This can be done by hewing to the mission and reinforcing it in word and deed regularly.
  • Find out more how to form the strongest kind of tribes in the workplace from my Ted Talk.

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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