Despite not being from my tribe (he's an American) I've enjoyed the You Are Not So Smart podcast from David McRaney for a long time. McRaney takes often complicated aspects of social psychology and makes them relevant to the real world.

He recently rebroadcasted his episode on Tribal Psychology (link below), which I highly recommend for anyone interested in understanding what is going on with Brexit or Trump. However, much of the content he covers applies equally to business contexts whether it's B2B sales, leading organisations or running effective change management programmes.

In each of these contexts, whether we are conscious of it or not, there may be many different tribal groupings which we, and the people we want to influence, are a part of. We may be in the 'seller' tribe or the 'buyer' tribe; the 'executive' tribe or the 'entry level worker' tribe; the 'pro-digital transformation' tribe or the 'old ways work' tribe. Some tribes may be based on functional or regional organisational structure or even down to things like 'smoker' or 'non-smoker'. Other tribes will be based on political or ideological beliefs.

The central point around tribal psychology is that it's often more important to us as individuals to signal to others how we're good members of the tribe, than it is for us to be right.

In a B2B situation this might manifest itself in a buyer finding reasons to choose what is a sub-optimal solution because the buyers tribe have a strong preference for it. The reasons the buyer finds to make the choice may not be based on 'truth' but will still seem to make sense to him or her.

In leadership or change management situations it might end up with us siding with our tribe even when we would have made a very different choice if we'd been in the other tribe a few weeks before.

So what can we do about this if we are trying to influence a change in thoughts, feelings or actions in someone?

Work Out What Tribes Are Important In The Situation

In different situations different tribal affiliations will feel important to different people. The situation might present a threat to a particular tribe that we're a part of, making this more important than any of the other tribes we belong to. Trying to recognise which tribes are significant in a specific situation can help us work out if our tribes are in competition or if they can co-operate.

Find Tribes In Common

In some situations we may be able to reframe which tribe is important for the person we're trying to influence. If we're selling complex technology solutions to a client who is knowledgeable about the technology, we may want them to think about the 'tech specialist' tribe we are both a part of rather than the 'buyer' and 'seller' tribes where we sit in different camps.

Common Tribal Ground

Finding common ground at a one to one level is a key part of any influence situation. Finding common tribal ground may be even more important. If someone feels that a part of what you are doing is valuable to their tribe, they are more likely to amplify that message with other members of their tribe outside of the one to one interaction you are having. 

Present Information From The Other Person's Tribe

We are more likely to believe information if it's come from one our tribe members and more likely to distrust, or ignore it, if it has come from an opposing tribe. For example, if as a leadership team we are trying to change the bonus scheme for our workforce, the 'worker' tribe may be more likely to believe information from members of the 'worker' tribe in other organisations than they are from the 'leadership' tribe of our business.

Client testimonials are a common way of doing this in a B2B setting but these may still fail if the person giving the testimonial is really from a different tribe to the person reading it.


David McRaney's podcast shows some of the absurdities of how we'll disconfirm information that doesn't fit with our tribe's position. This isn't necessarily insurmountable though, particularly if we can ensure the message we want the other person to receive, comes from a friendly tribe.