Friendships. They’re important, aren’t they? Such relationships meet an important need that human beings have – to belong.

Children are happiest at school when they have good friendships. And, certainly, we adults are happiest at work when we have positive, supportive relationships with our colleagues.

This need to belong is often met in social groups, where we identify with certain values and behaviours in that group – churches, sporting groups and ethnic communities being a few examples.

But this need to belong can go wrong when loyalty to our own social group, comes at the expense of others. It is a type of negative tribalism.

We all remember at school the ‘in crowd’ and the ‘out crowd’, the ‘nerds’ and the ‘cool kids’ and, sometimes, the cruel comments and rejection that was experienced by some of us.

In our workplaces, we see the ‘us and them’ mentality, with unkind comments made between team members and leaders. “If only team members weren’t so negative …” Or “This workplace would be so much better if only the leaders got their act together”.

In politics and social issues, there are those who share our beliefs and values and others who we consider as misguided, misinformed or ‘the enemy’.

And, in broader society, there can be division between communities. You don’t have to look very hard to see very unkind stereotypes made about certain cultures.

Where does this divisiveness and negative tribalism come from? Here are five factors that help to explain:

  1. Generalisations and stereotypes: These are widely held, but often fixed and oversimplified beliefs of another group. Categorising others in this way helps our brain to organise information. However, such generalisations are often false, inaccurate and certainly not true for all.
  2. Negativity bias: Social psychologists say that these unkind assumptions about others are fed by the inherent bias that most of us have towards assuming the worst of others. This negativity bias, while highly functional in a life-threatening situation, is highly dysfunctional in our relationships with others. When we assume the worst of others, we are usually wrong.
  3. Confirmation bias: We also need to guard against our confirmation bias, where we pay attention to evidence or reports that support our strongly-held opinion of others and filter out evidence which is inconsistent with our views. This is part of the reason why people who are unhappy with colleagues tend to gravitate towards one another – our human need for support found with people who confirm our view of others.
  4. Power: Negative tribalism, speaking poorly about or acting hurtfully towards others, also gives many of us a sense of power by feeling superior to others. It can also be functional in helping to generate support from our own community. But here we are meeting our need for power in ways that come at a cost to others. This is not how good relationships and communities work.
  5. Fear: Yes, we are right to be fearful of individuals who want to do us harm. But this fear is often placed on entire communities, not individuals. The concerns some Australians have about Muslim Australians seeking to harm others is an example of this. We need to judge individuals, not entire communities.Others are concerned about change. Part of this fear is a very normal ‘startle response’ to people or communities that appear different in some way. The good news is that as we become more familiar with people who are different, we tend to become more comfortable.

While there is nothing wrong with our need to belong and a sense of connection to a particular group, we need to guard against negative tribalism, where we are meeting our needs for connection and power at the expense of others.

We can certainly encourage our children to be accepting of difference and inclusive of others.

We can also counter divisiveness in workplaces by addressing this directly and reminding colleagues we are all part of the same team and are there for the same reason.

While we may feel a strong sense of belonging to a particular group, we need to value our differences and be genuinely interested in others.

We also need to see ourselves as part of a much larger tribe – the human one.

Quote of the week

“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.”

– Barack Obama

You might also like to read

Workplace Bullying: What Individuals Can Do
Good Manners in the Workplace