Ethics: A ‘Tribal’ Perspective

Natalia Autenrieth | November 2, 2015 | 1

This article reflects the book, Tribal Leadership, by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright (2011), which presents the concept that every company or organization consists of one or more “tribes.” That is, groups of 20-150 people in which everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows of everyone else. The author also considers how ethics plays into such dynamics at the individual level.

Have you ever debated the pros and the cons of a messy decision? Chances are your dilemma was, in concept or in practice, about ethics. Why should an accountancy or a financial professional care about ethics, which we have come to associate with long-dead philosophers and dusty books?

Ethics are standards of behavior. As you have undoubtedly experienced for yourself, behavior standards are not high-flying abstract philosophical concepts, but rather down-to-earth decision-making guidelines that affect all aspects of our lives, from the most mundane to life-and-death.

Based on my personal experience of growing up in different countries and cultures, and a life-long study of human potential, I believe that all ethics exist at the “tribal level,” that is, at group level (however you define a specific group). Tribal ethics are, in my definition, the lowest common denominator of behavior that won’t get you kicked out of the tribe. After all, humans are tribal creatures, and belonging to a tribe is a deeply wired value for most of us.

Tribes exist at different developmental stages. In other words, there is a certain commonly understood and accepted base level of right and wrong for every tribe, and that level is determined by the developmental stage of the tribe.

Borrowing from the tribal leadership model developed by management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, tribal ethics can be grouped into five stages.

  • Stage One tribes can be described as: the world is hostile, every man for himself. This extreme world view is more common for gangs and prisons than corporations. At this stage of development, back-stabbing, stealing, and violence are viewed as not only ethical and acceptable, but essential for survival. In the world of accountancy and financial professionals, Stage One tribes are rare—yet they offer valuable insight into what I like to call “a thin veneer of civilization.” Truly, getting basic needs met is a prerequisite for a higher level of ethical standards.
  • A Stage Two tribe member’s belief is “my life is tough.” The ethics in a Stage Two tribe can allow for apathetic, antagonistic, petty, and egocentric behaviors. For example, a culture where a doctor finds it acceptable to prescribe unnecessary medications to a patient for personal financial gain, and a general contractor overbills a doctor for low-quality bathroom floor tile. The ethics of players in these tribes are driven by a sense of scarcity and limited resources (for one person to win, another must lose). You might be surprised to find out that based on Logan’s research, 25% of workplace tribes fall into this category.
  • Stage Three tribes’ attitude can be described as “I am great, you are not.” This is the land of lone rangers where every player is attempting to outrun, outjump, and outthink everyone else. Because everyone thinks that they are the single smartest and most capable professional on the team, personal (and tribal) ethics at this stage can allow for knowledge and resource hoarding, and there can be a sense of entitlement in decision making (e.g., “I am the most qualified, therefore the rules don’t apply to me”). This is a common environment for many professional practices.
  • Stage Four tribe members are genuinely excited to work together for the common good of their tribe. If you have ever attended a sporting event, you have probably experienced Stage Four tribes on a visceral level, both on the playing field and in the audience. Common values unite the tribe against all others, and elevate the ethical baseline (e.g., back-stabbing, sabotage, and petty self-serving attitudes are universally viewed as not acceptable). Trusting, constructive relationships that characterize this stage call for a higher standard in honesty and compassion, and a focus on core values.
  • Stage Five tribes can be described as “purpose-centric.” The tribal members’ ethics at this level support their efforts of working for the good of humankind. This is the most rare—and the most fleeting—of all tribal stages.

As the world around us becomes increasingly transparent and inter-connected, the influence of tribes at higher developmental stages becomes a powerful driver in the desire to elevate our own tribes (and their underlying ethics). After all, we are always only a few steps away from inspiration: TED talks, industry conferences, books, and spiritual leaders are just some of the motivators for us to challenge and elevate our game. So just how does one do that, using the tribal model?

A few key concepts to remember before we jump into implementation.

  • Tribes do not get to skip a stage, with the exception of Stage One. In other words, you don’t get to move directly from “my life is awful” to “the world is a wonderful place with enough resources for everyone to play nicely together.” Ethics, as behavior guidelines that are a reflection of their underlying world view, don’t change overnight.
  • Tribes can only constructively hear and experience the stages that are directly above or below their current stage. In other words, a Stage Two (“my life is awful”) tribe is unlikely to buy into the goal of working together to eliminate poverty.

So what’s an accountant or a financial professional to do with all this?

The very first step is an honest assessment of where your work tribe is today. If you find yourself in a culture of “my life stinks” and “screw or be screwed,” your first order of business is to work on building the skills of your team. After all, one does not get to that “I am great!” feeling without some hard-earned competencies. It is critically important to create and enforce accountability structures—think about what the tribe is not willing to tolerate and hold the line. Use tools that can help the process (such as effective listening models, feedback models, training, and/or coaching). Acknowledge the individual strengths of the players on your team, and celebrate wins no matter how small. But a quick word of warning: Stage Two tribes are often fond of whining and complaining. The most constructive thing you can do is refuse to join in—and instead take the time to address and understand the complaint.

If your tribe is on the solid “I am great!” ground, you are not alone! According to the Tribal Leadership research, almost half of all workplaces operate at this level, and this is a common playground for professionals of all kinds, from accountants to doctors and lawyers. To move closer to the culture and ethics that are mission-focused, start with defining your values and living them. Storytelling can be a powerful tool at this stage.

To move even higher into the territory of serving humankind, your tribe must discover its outrage—something your tribe is almost physically unwilling to tolerate. This stage is about upgrading competition and making history.

Above all, keep in mind that the actions of individuals in any tribe, whether an accounting department in a hospital or the C-suite team in a Fortune 500 company, are, to a significant extent, a reflection of the ethics and values of the tribe overall. Crooks, criminals, and sociopaths aside, the middle of the Bell curve (i.e. most of us) will simply fall into “the norm” of the environment most of the time. The reality is that every tribe has an ethical baseline, and unless you are intentionally shaping and influencing it for the better, chances are it is shaping and influencing you and your team in ways that are less than constructive.

The fluidity of our tribal ethics is what makes our experience as professionals and as humans infinitely more complex. So next time you find yourself at a crossroads, ask yourself: what are my core values? What are the values of the tribe around me? Are they constructive? Allow those answers to guide your next steps.


Natalia Autenrieth

CPA, Executive Coach, Autenrieth Advantage

Natalia Autenrieth is an executive coach who works with CPAs and other professionals to make their careers and practices sustainable, highly profitable, and more fun. In her professional work across the United States, Natalia has audited Fortune 500 clients as part of a Big 4 team, built an accounting department as a controller of a large hospital, and served as a CPA consultant to municipalities. Natalia holds a BSBS/MSA in Accounting from Suffolk University (Boston, MA). She is a graduate of Coach University, and a member of the International Coach Federation.  


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Ian Jenkins November 13, 2015

Tribalism? Evident in a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research. Trade protectionism is rife around the world. National governance is having to resort to protectionism in the face of unregulated global finance. Expect a collision. Morgan Stanley sought the advice of the London School of Economics, and were told that workers will take their revenge, returns on capital will fall, and we'll see a bloodbath in the bond market.


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