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Why the team became a tribe

Written by: Andrew Clark
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A team is a group of individuals working together to achieve their goal, as defined by Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management. The term tribe is used in many different contexts to refer to a category of human social groups. So what changed? There has been an abrupt change to the way we interact.

In this challenging time, a wide range of emotions are running high. The immediate reaction is one of lack of control and fear of the unknown. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, fear is one of the most powerful emotions. It’s defined as “an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen”. We’re all concerned about our health and personal safety, emotions—the key and our heightened emotional response—have changed the level at which our tribe interacts.

The impacts are well articulated by Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  As outlined in this graphic representation, we’re seeing people shed the unnecessary things that are really not valuable in supporting our basic needs.

We also know from our study of applied Behavioural Economics (BE) that rational thought and emotions combine within a particular culture to drive decisions and behaviour. In fact, 23 percent of behaviour is driven by reason, 77 percent is driven by emotion. There are practical examples throughout our employee recognition and sales effectiveness programs, but this is different. It’s personal and about our most basic needs.

As humans, we like routine. We’re wired to take the easy familiar path with our decision making. It’s known in BE terms as heuristics or mental short cuts. In these challenging circumstances, our routine has been interrupted. We have lost the ability to use familiar rules of thumb, shortcuts, and tricks of the trade to help solve problems or to help make decisions. Many decisions are now being made for us about what, when, and how we live our daily lives.

People feel the pain of loss more strongly than the pleasure of a gain – it’s called loss aversion. Studies show loss is two times more painful. It’s part of prospect theory – making decisions based on potential gains and losses. If you give a person two equal choices—one telling them how much they will gain and the other how much they will lose—they will choose the winning option, even though it’s the same.  For example:

  • Gain: If you get the flu vaccine you have a 75 percent chance of staying healthy.
  • Loss: If you get the flu vaccine you have a 25 percent chance of getting sick.

During this time, our need for social interaction and validation are heightened. Many of us simply weren’t prepared for this and don’t know what to do. We take cues from what we see and hear around us.

People tend to put a value on something by comparing it to something else. It’s called relativity bias and it can shape our behaviour. A current much-reported example is the irrational increased demand for toilet paper. When I see everyone at the grocery store with rolls and rolls of toilet paper in their cart, I think I must need that too. Compounding this effect when you get to that aisle in the grocery store there is a hastily handmade sign limiting everyone to one item each. In fact, it’s on eggs, pasta, rice, tomato sauce, soup, and much more. Now I think I must need all these items as well. It’s called framing bias

Our ability to physically interact has been highly restricted to those things deemed essential – heightening the need for us to connect socially through technology. There has been an interesting shift in our sense of community. Now we’re all using Webex, Zoom, FaceTime, Houseparty, and others to stay connected. We need to see each other and share our experiences. Spontaneity in a traditional office setting has been eliminated. This is related to subjective wellbeing – how people feel about themselves; perceived happiness and vividness. People remember things that are graphic or dramatic.

Then there is the dopamine effect. We’re addicted to it. The “rush” people feel after something good happens; a chemical reaction in the brain. People want to repeat experiences that make them feel good. A practical example is recognition and rewards programs that help people feel good about what they are doing. This keeps them focused, directed, and willing to repeat the behaviours.

There is an ongoing appetite for information as we go through various stages in understanding our situation and how to manage it. The level of communication from governments and healthcare organizations is unprecedented and necessary. We need direction and support on how to be safe.  

There are also those who don’t get the message. You are likely wondering how could this be? It’s something called confirmation bias. People seek out and believe information that they already agree with. How could someone hear the benefits of social distancing; agree and then not practice it? It’s called preference reversal – saying one thing and doing another. Also called the say-do gap, people do it all the time.

We all like to have some measure of routine and goal setting can help us gain a sense of progress toward an eventual outcome. People who set their own goals tend to be emotionally connected to them and are simply more likely to achieve them. People like to believe their situation is unique and they assess their uniqueness by comparing themselves to others (idiosyncratic fit). We need to feel like we have a chance at achievement to accept the challenge.

For many, our goals have changed dramatically and now include the complexities and restrictions of working from home and abnormal limits on the freedoms we’re accustomed to.

We all want to know when this will end. When we look at social distancing and the efforts that the general public must take, the heroic efforts of frontline healthcare workers, and all those that provide the support and goods and services that we need to live our daily lives – the efforts are unprecedented.

As we see the flattening of the curve in some areas we’re reminded that this is now the time to double down and work even harder at eradication. Commonly, the closer people get to a goal, the more effort they put into meeting it. Think of a marathon—and this is one of sorts—people run faster the closer they get to the finish line. It’s called goal gradient theory.

So why is employee recognition more important than ever? We have collectively been through a lot and it’s healing to celebrate the efforts and achievements of many:

  1. Demonstrate appreciation and compassion
    Recognizing employees for specific, identifiable actions proves you appreciate their skills and the company values them and the more often the better.

  2. Celebrate the manifestation of your corporate values
    Showing appreciation for employees exhibits your workplace’s values, including respect, fairness, open communication, teamwork, and more.

  3. Share the hero stories
    Employee recognition is a positive way to communicate the tremendous effort and perseverance of those that made big and small differences and supported each other.

  4. Nudge people to achieve more and achieve goals
    When you publicly reinforce behaviours you have observed, you motivate employees to help the team reach its goals.

  5. Foster teamwork and collaboration
    Recognizing employee teams builds camaraderie and a spirit of cooperation, while also boosting the credibility of the team, as well as your management appreciation.

  6. Creates sharable processes
    The best employee recognition practices and success stories can be shared across the organization – spreading the power of employee engagement and teamwork. We’re going to see a ton of these emerge.

  7. Show leadership appreciation and commitment
    Making sure your employees know they are valued and appreciated shows you really care about their success and their future at the company.

  8. Celebrate commitment and longevity
    Recognizing employee anniversaries is a great way to honour long-serving team members and it shows new employees the quality of commitment. (Pro tip: Think carefully about what “long-standing” means in your workforce. More and more, companies are recognizing employees sooner in their careers, like on their first or third anniversary.


What are some great tactics to shine a light on the right behaviours?

Peer-to-Peer Recognition

It feels good to give peer-to-peer values-based recognition. Particularly now, there are so many examples of small and big sacrifices. It’s counterintuitive but interesting to see how the content is so much more thoughtful and personal when people take the time to send recognition rather than a quick “thanks” in person. When you add in badging or personalized ecards it creates a more vivid memorable experience for the giver and the receiver. Yes, “it’s better to give than to receive”—well almost—receiving feels good too. A great example is our newest tradition of friends and neighbours banging pots and pans at 7:00 pm to recognize the incredible selfless acts of healthcare professionals and those that support them.

Manager Discretionary Recognition

Manager discretionary recognition with or without reward points. We all want to know that our leaders appreciate the effort that we’re putting in. A recognition with a personal comment from a leader has a material impact on level of commitment and intensity of that commitment. Adding discretionary reward points magnifies that impact. 


We all like to be recognized by our peers or supervisor and to know that our efforts have been noticed. Creating a formal framework for contributions from teammates with specific criteria can really help align behaviours and provide a platform to celebrate key contributions. This is where the hero stories that you don’t know about may emerge.

Does it matter? Oh Yeah!

While the economic reality is hitting many businesses and they have had to shrink their workforce, there are critical roles that need to be maintained. In fact, many of these people have stepped up to do more. You don’t want to lose them they are in high demand. Our studies show that turnover is 17.7 percent less among employees receiving at least one recognition throughout their eligible program tenure.

Does Frequency of recognition matter? Indeed!

There is a correlation between frequency of receiving recognitions and turnover. Employee turnover decreases as frequency of recognitions increases. A 10 percentage point reduction in turnover is seen between Low-to-High receiving rate.

Does giving recognition with reward points matter? Absolutely!

A positive correlation existed between employee turnover and recognition receiving rate, driven almost exclusively by those receiving recognitions with awards. Turnover is four times higher among employees with the lowest ‘recognitions with awards’ receiving rates compared to the highest rate of receiving recognition with awards.

This is, in fact, a defining leadership moment. 

I couldn’t sum it up better than Dr. Brad Shuck, Assistant Professor and Program Director at the University of Louisville, "in a world where almost everything is different, leaders are showing up with a new skill set. They’re leading with dignity and inspiring with authenticity. They are relentless in their commitment to unselfish service and humility. They are taking it as an opportunity to live and lead in a new way: with compassion. We have seen the importance of giving recognition and to support your efforts to recognize your team members at the appropriate time. Studies show that frequent recognition has a positive impact on employee happiness in the workplace. Moreover, a happy employee is a more engaged and productive employee and we could use some happiness right about now.

Compassion is becoming the currency of our culture and the heartbeat of our cities. And, while business continues to shift, we have the power to fundamentally change the way people live their lives through their work – not just for the next few months, but for generations to come. Our teams will be forever changed with a sense of connection and inspiration that has brought us closer together in a new way."

Andrew Clark

President, BI WORLDWIDE Canada

As President of BI WORLDWIDE Canada, Andrew's primary focus is to develop employee engagement strategies and recognition solutions that change the behaviours of employees and achieve measurable results. Andrew is an evangelist for the principles of behavioural economics which are at the core of what BI WORLDWIDE Canada does.