Teams and Tribes

Mrs Anne Byrne, Teacher, Science Faculty and Debating Coordinator

Three years ago I was addressing a Fathers Group on the importance of girls experiencing team cultures. All was progressing as expected until I spoke of the impact of pulling on a pair of blue and navy, red and black or blue and white socks. Suddenly the air in the room began to crackle – backs straightened, shoulders squared, eyes met, smiles exchanged and the mood … intensified. What had happened? It seems I had unwittingly evoked the most primal of emotions at the heart of humanity – the tribal response. For the most humble of 9H footballers to the elite First XVs, these socks provide an entrée to a select brotherhood.

An overstatement? Probably not. Mackay (2016) argues that humans are tribal creatures and that our tribal-ness is the single most culturally significant thing about us. He claims that our sense of ourselves as social beings, grounded and shaped by our social context, is more psychologically important than our personal identity.

So what is a tribe? The Free Dictionary (n.d.) describes a tribe as a ‘social division of a people, defined in terms of common ancestry, territory, culture, religion or race’. In sociological literature this is expanded to include common identity concepts, shared interests and aspirations to common goals (Owens, n.d.). But definitions are only one part of the tribal equation. It is the rich emotional component that really defines tribal membership.

Human beings evolved as social organisms, with ‘the group’ being vital to survival and safety. The tribal mentality draws an individual into the tribe’s beliefs, ensuring all members view life from the same perspective (Myss, n.d.). To belong to a tribe is to accept the rules, expectations and behavioural boundaries of the tribe. This tribal inculcation begins at birth when we enter family, religious, ethnic, national and cultural tribes simultaneously. Add to this a layering of socio-economic tribalism and we are surrounded by tribal expectations, most of which remain unchallenged, with the majority of us rarely moving away from our predestined tribes.

Clearly a tribe offers enough benefits to members to expend the necessary energy to remain indefinitely. Belonging to a tribe creates order in our lives and by contributing to tribal tasks we provide meaning, purpose and authenticity to our lives (Junger, 2016). Tribal membership allows us to align ourselves with like-minded people and assists us to achieve our personal goals more quickly. Additionally, it is human nature to crave intimacy and belonging; both qualities of our emotional selves that contribute to mental health and well-being (Rankin, 2012). Being valued and accepted by members reassures us that our beliefs are valid; our efforts worthwhile. There is comfort to be found in being with others who prioritise life as we do. Tribes help us to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

Junger (2016) proposes that social changes have led to a loss of tribal mentality and this is greatly hurting our ability to find happiness, purpose and meaning in our lives. He attributes much of the depression, feelings of isolation, spiritual and social disconnectedness in modern cities to the decline in tribes as we become more affluent and independent. A need for ‘belonging’ permeates his writing as he claims that the crucial need for belonging is best addressed at the heart of tribal life.

But it is evident that tribal membership comes at a cost. Conformity brings problems (Mackay, 2016).  A percentage of our life-force goes into maintaining our affiliation with the tribe. Members can hold judgmental attitudes, along with prejudices that travel as companion baggage.  Some tribal memberships can limit the development of the individual mind (Myss, n.d.) which wants to explore, develop and manage its consciousness without limitations imposed by the tribal mind. Fear of exclusion from a tribe often drives members to undertake socially dysfunctional tasks to prove worthiness. Gang initiations are a disturbing example of this practice. As well, fear of exclusion or a fear of failing the group can result in a swathe of negative psychological and physiological consequences. Teenagers and young adults are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon.

Understanding that it is human nature to form tribes allows us to consider learning in the context of tribal culture (Owens, n.d.). There are benefits to educators if they understand the dynamics of tribes and how best to harness tribal culture while minimising the associated costs.

The question remains, though, as to why we would spend time and effort specifically encouraging Grammar girls to identify with our School tribe when they already, from birth, belong to so many tribes?  One obvious answer to this question lies with the academic pathways our girls must follow to reach their future career choices. Extensive research shows that education and learning are collaborative pursuits and flourish within a strong supportive tribal culture.

As well, there is a cultural phenomenon recognised by social psychologists (Chodorow, 2012; Seelig, 2002) who have identified the quantum difference between how girls and boys interact from an early age. Research shows that tribally inculcated (mainly through sport) boys demonstrate significantly stronger skills of team membership and cohesion by the time they enter secondary school, than their female counterparts who are more likely to slip into the various forms of culturally endorsed (for girls) small-group, self-focused behaviours. While most workplace settings consist of similar numbers of both genders, males still dominate the leadership profiles of most organisations. Seelig (2002) postulates that one of the principle reasons women find it difficult to climb leadership ladders is because of their limited understanding of how men in key positions work in teams and negotiate outcomes.

If we accept that a tribal culture adds value for our girls in both the academic arena and the socio-psychological arena of self-esteem, self-confidence and identity, then it is important that we own, encourage and manage this culture. So, how do we do this? Firstly by encouraging the big inclusive tribal moments. The roar of QCS-supporter War Cries, the vibrancy and excitement of Blue Days, Harry Potter Days and Pyjama Days, ‘getting down’ on the D-floor, the chants, exhilaration and unadulterated competitiveness of QG sporting events (while wearing blue and white socks!), the joy of School Birthday celebrations and the united purpose embedded in Grammar Goes Green days are just a few of these ‘belonging’ moments.

But there is far more on offer. Mackay (2016) maintains that modern tribes take many forms, fostering a sense of belonging even in small work settings. Teams and groups are tribal microcosms offering the essential elements of larger tribes. At Girls Grammar, tribal culture is nurtured in the curriculum of most subjects through group work and team endeavours where individuals pool effort and expertise to achieve group goals which may be unattainable by a single student. An important lesson learned here is the necessity, on occasion, to subsume one’s needs into the needs of the group in order to achieve goals. Co-curricular groups further extend these experiences when individuals align themselves with and contribute to groups that resonate with their beliefs and aspirations.

Understanding tribes allows us to consider tribal roles and functions and the role they play in how we function in society, how we lead and learn, drive change, understand behavior and make valuable contributions in our communities. In turn, it means that we are able to harness the strengths of tribal culture to scaffold and enhance the pathways for current and future aspirations of our students.


Chodorow, N.J. (2012). Individualizing gender and sexuality: Theory and practice. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

Junger, S. (2016).  Tribe: on homecoming and belonging. (1st d ed.)   Canada: Harper Collins.

Mackay, H. (2016). On the power of the tribe. Retrieved from

Myss, C. (n.d.). Transcending the Tribe. Retrieved from

Owens, P. (n.d.). Leading tribes: Leadership secrets you need to know.  Retrieved   from

Rankin, L. (2012). The health benefits of finding your tribe.  Retrieved from

Seelig, B.J. (2002). Constructing and deconstructing woman’s power. New York: Karnac books.

Tribe. (n.d.). In The Free Dictionary. Retrieved from