Culture’s a big deal at Meebo – we constantly think about and actively manage it. A lot of the credit for setting our early culture the right way goes to Elaine, one of my two Co-Founders, who recognized that if we got it wrong early on, recovery would be incredibly difficult. As Meebo continues to grow (it’s 100+ people now) it’s a constant challenge to make certain that the company culture stays on the right path.
A little while ago we began to realize that as teams formed within the company there was an increased opportunity for tribalism. As Martin Green (Meebo’s COO) pointed out, now people worked more with people in their own group than they did with people in other groups. There was the potential for “I work for team XYZ at Meebo” instead of “I’m on team Meebo.” Once tribalism begins to form, it’s not long before each group internally begins to complain about how another group isn’t helping them. Let that dynamic go too far, and as Peter Fenton recently pointed out to me, antibodies can form between groups, which are incredibly challenging to clear.
I’d argue that lack of empathy is the number one source of tribalism. Sure, there are things that every company does to try to keep teams working well together. Company BBQs, birthday celebrations, promoting cross-team lunches, etc. But if each individual within the company doesn’t empathize with the life of another – the internal pressures, external pressures, performance measurement, family obligations, lifestyle demands of work – tribalism will form, even with those company picnics.
The engineer needs to think about how the sales person is measured and how little sleep and how many planes they’ve probably been on in the last seven days. The sales person needs to think about the difficulty the engineer has when context switching from one project to another. Of course, people don’t know what they don’t know. But if they began from a place of empathy and assumed there must be some pressure (or assumption) in that other person’s life driving their reaction, they would easily arrive at a mutual understanding.
A few months ago, when we began to detect the slightest bit of tribalism forming at Meebo, I began talking about how important it was that everyone at the company empathize with the unique pressures others in the company face. That did the trick, and we nipped it in the bud.
I began this post writing about empathy, but it became a post on how tribalism forms from lack of empathy. There are so many more situations, from M&A negotiations to sales to interpersonal relationships where more empathy from both parties – working to truly understand the pressures and assumptions of the other – would make a world of difference. I’ll keep trying – I hope you do too.