Tribal behavior and Organisational culture


Art connector, National Gallery, Singapore

We are people of tribes albeit moving in different costumes.  The size of our tribes differ. It can be huge, such as national level, right down to the family level. In the space of work, we behave as tribes in an organisational culture.

Every organisation has an internal environment, known as the personality of the organisation. A system of beliefs, norms, values and attitudes shared by members of an organisation – communicating to new members the correct ways to think and act;  “the way we do things around here”. Usually the unspoken is more powerful than the spoken. Much has been written about Enron’s cowboy and toxic culture, yet on its website its Vision and Values brazenly state that the company is about Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.

For young careerist, its important to understand the organisation culture of the firm you’re entering. Factors such as management style, size, type of business, ownership, strategy, structure and technology influence a team’s culture.

Johnson uses a cultural web framework to observe a company’s culture. The cultural web is made up of:

Routine – the ways that members of the organisation behave towards each other and towards those outside the organisation and which make up how things are done or how things should happen.

Rituals – the special events through which the organisation emphasises what is particularly important and can include formal organisational processes and informal processes.

Stories/Heroes and Superstars – told by members of the organisation which embed the present and flag up important events and personalities, and typically have to do with successes, failures, heroes, villains and mavericks. Now older and wiser, I see that heroes in a particular culture somehow seem to possess certain characteristics and what is celebrated as success.

Symbols and language – such as logos, offices, cars, titles, type of language commonly used which become a shorthand representation of the nature of the organisation.

Power structures – the most powerful individuals or groups in the organisation which may be based on management position and seniority but in some organisations power can be lodged with other levels or functions. Microsoft employees for instance are known to be  competitive, self-assured. Yet possess an ability to switch sides. This is very unlike IBM’s cohesive, mutually supportive team structure.

Control systems – performance measurement and reward systems on what is important  – for example, stewardship of funds or quality of service.

Organisation structure –  power structures and decision-making

Paradigm – of the organisation which encapsulates and reinforces the behaviours observed in other elements of the cultural web.

Organisation cultures affect how decisions are made, rewards are dished out, resources shared and relationships are forged.

There are several useful frameworks to examine the cultures of organisation such as Handy’s 4 types of Culture, Deal and Handy, as well as Peters and Waterman Framework among others.

1. Monkey Business by John Rolfe and Peter Troob
2. The Vogue Factor: Inside Story by Kirstie Clements

Enron: Smartest guys in the room
Barbarians at the Gate (Fall of RJR Nabisco)


I’ve heard them say that Chang’an seems like in a game of chess,
A hundred years of world events have caused unbearable pain.
The palaces of the noblemen all have their new masters,
Civil and military dress and caps are not like those before.

Du Fu, Tang Dynasty poet



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