Collaboration and Competition in a Time of Tribalism

Mary B. McRae, Ed.D

We live in a world where the constructive and destructive aspects of collaboration and competition are visible in so many parts of life.  Tribalized politics is growing like a wild fire in communities, countries, it is a global phenomenon. Historically, tribes are described as a group of people, often related, who live together, share same language, culture, and history.  Thus the formation of tribes is a human phenomenon, a sense of belonging, comfort and security for its members.  Those who belong commit themselves to the beliefs and values of the tribe.  Loyalty to the tribe stems from the sense of belonging to a familiar, like minded, and caring group. Members of the tribe see themselves as different from those who are not like them, whether it be race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social class, sexual orientation, age, nationality, and/or culture. What tribes do you belong to?  How do we work across the vast boundaries of differences that may exist between us?  

Tribalism involves competition between groups for power and control over resources, roles of authority, boundaries, and policies that govern institutions.  Present day tribalism can be seen in the policies and laws promoted and resisted by various political groups such as the new Israeli citizen law, protection of borders from immigrants; growing gap of income inequality; between religious/ethnic groups; the power to commit sexual abuse; #Black Lives Matter Movement against racism; gay marriage equality.  In the work place these issues are most often not spoken to, at least not across differences that is.  Yet we each carry our own views, grounded in or grown out of those of our tribal groups, the process of socialization.  The boundary where we meet, each representing our tribes in one way or another, competing for power and authority to create policies, assign various roles set and manage boundaries, can be intense and challenging.  

The anthropologist, Margaret Mead in her study of indigenousness groups concluded that competition is culturally determined in human behavior.  Thus, some societies are more competitive than others.  It is not that competition is bad.  It is a human dynamic process that occurs interpersonally, between groups, and in institutional life.  Competition can foster team work and increase productivity, which can improve standards of living and create a better life.  It pushes us to want to do better. 

Competition is prone to be destructive when there is no conscious awareness or recognition of its existence.  When the competitive dynamics are ignored or denied, they may sabotage or create dysfunction in groups and in organizational life.  There is little room for collaboration with those who are perceived as “the other”, a member of another tribe of whom we might hold long standing  assumptions, stereotypes, myths, and fantasies.  Perhaps those in authority in our tribe has called the other tribe criminals, thieves, rapists, and terrorists.  

Engaging in constructive dialogue moves us from mistrust and polarization to collaboration. Constructive dialogue allows us to explore points of connection and disconnection, similarities and differences, to explore “being with what is”.  Such dialogue involves interest and motivation to work more effectively with the differences we each bring to the table.   Collaboration seems to work best when we can find a common goal, where one person’s actions increases the chances of others.  Although we may not like or approve of the power differences that exist,  acknowledging them and exploring strategies to work with and around them is ideal, yet most difficult to do.  Finding ways to work across differences, creating a space for difficult conversations, ways of understanding and working with and across boundaries, learning to manage the challenges of a changing environment, are all focal points of learning to survive and adapt in a changing world.  The Conference “Collaboration and Competition: Exploring the Dynamics of Working Together in Groups, Organisations, and Communities” will provide an opportunity to experience these issues in the here-and-now of the moment.