The President’s financial reform plan falls short of what the nation needs. It bails out financial institutions but leaves them intact and allows their grossly overpaid executives to police themselves. These are obvious defects to those of us outside Wall Street, and some question the integrity of the President’s decision makers. I’m not convinced that it’s a deliberate sellout, rather it springs from tribalism; something far more subtle and influential. Don’t get me wrong, lobbyist money is playing a huge role in perverting and gutting financial reform, but tribalism amplifies its effectiveness.
Human evolutionary development ―over hundreds of thousands of years― has been within tribes of hunter gatherers who shared language, myths, rituals, experiences, worldviews and genes. Tribal members survived by cooperating within the tribal structure and by believing and acting as though his/her tribe was fundamentally the best of all tribes, a chosen people. The approval of other members of the tribe—as manifested by status rituals— was all that mattered. Each tribe knew that outsiders were their inferiors as well as likely competitors for critical resources. Its culture justified treating outsiders as subhuman, unworthy of consideration and incapable of cultural contributions.
We do not survive or thrive as individuals in isolation. Clubs, gangs and teams are ad hoc tribes that fill the need to belong. Companies, schools, fraternities and sororities, political parties, religions and professional organizations unify people around tribal characteristics. Gated communities bond local tribes of the “wealthier Nation.” Nationalism and patriotism are scaled up tribal concepts. For each of us, our tribe or tribes define how we see problems and how we solve them. For example, most of us view and respond to world affairs from the point of view of how it affects the United States; our instincts and tribal leaders tell us that we know what’s best for the world. When our leaders meddle in the affairs of other nations or start unjust wars, we support them and castigate those who don’t go along.
Tribalism is deeply rooted in our genes and can be both helpful and limiting. It focuses our own thoughts and actions while making those of others more predictable. It also profoundly limits what we see and biases how we interpret the complexities of life. For those fanatically rooted in a single tribe, be it religion, money, or race, the world is simple, choices are simple and friends are few and predictable. For those of us who are active members of several tribes, our perspectives are richer, our choices greater and more nuanced, our friends less predictable and our world is far messier.
Consider the obvious tribalism of Wall Street executives: they behave as though they are members of a chosen people, uniquely worthy of the largess which they exchange with one another from the enormous pools which they control. To them, money is a tribal symbol of relative status which generates a never ending competition for more. They don’t appreciate and are little affected by the anger of the Main Street nation of tribes; they are just doing their own tribe’s thing and reassuring one another that they know best; they only ask that outsiders buzz off and leave them to regulate themselves by the codes of their own tribe. (The tribe of politicians, which carries on a profitable trading relationship with the Wall Street tribe, has actively supported non-interference while ritually chanting “free-market competition” about markets that are neither competitive nor free.)
Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and other key advisers leading financial reform are members of the Wall Street Tribe through their years of professional involvement, life styles and shared rituals; they are not members of the Main Street Nation of tribes who scratch out a living outside the world of finance and who usually work in competitive environments and live in small homes or apartments in middle class or impoverished neighborhoods. Naturally, these economic advisers have produced a solution acceptable to Wall Street; a solution which they deem to be sufficient because they assume that members of their tribe work in the tribe’s best interests and that automatically makes it in the best interests of the Main Street nation. Had Larry Summers included members of the Main Street nation in his team — such as leaders of small businesses, workers and managers of regional and local banks— and then involved them as equals, he would have added critical breadth and depth to the financial reform proposals. Instead, he chose to work with people he already knew, fellow tribesmen; a common and easily understood mistake given the pressure for a swift solution. However, it still isn’t too late for corrective actions.
A first principal in building effective teams is to bring in team members with membership in each of the tribes that are key stakeholders in the solutions. I’ll post some future blogs on project management from a course I taught in Shanghai in the fall of 1989.