Amazing institutions

For the past few days, I've been psyching out the underlying psychological dynamics of tribal mindsets, value positions and patterns of conduct. I first concluded: "people in these mental states would be stuck living in tribes". There first appeared to be no alternative to tribal existences that they could cope with, find attractive or settle into comfortably. Later I realized that I was wrong to jump to that conclusion. The nature of institutions, hierarchies, monarchies, empires and bureaucracies all welcome the tribal mindset as their workforce. There are remarkable synergies between the ways institutions organize people and the needs of the tribal mindset. Institutions provide an exit from tribal existences without requiring a change in the underlying psychological dynamics of the mindset. Institutions have said "come as you are" and "welcome inside" to people throughout the ages that have been living with their heads in a tribal consciousness. Here are a few of those synergies:
  • Tribes provide a shared identity to those with no identity as a talented, unique individual. They provide a sense of belonging and acceptance to people who feel like "nobody" when called upon to speak for themselves, disagree with authorities or take responsibility for the effects of collective actions. Institutions accommodate and reward this same mindset when they promote and pay for length of service rather than competence or value created. They also provide safe havens for "lifers", "joiners" and "functionaries" who know better than to step out of line, call attention to oneself or disrupt the cohesion of the enclave.
  • Tribes provide surrogate father figures for "boys with their toys" who missed out on legitimization by their own fathers. Tribes provide a cover of legitimacy for those who remain dependent on authority figures to figure out what to do, which direction to head in and when to take action. Institutions also provide authoritarian, top-down supervision to a workforce plagued by unresolved issues from childhood. They expect the rank and file to be dependent on "the big brain at the top in control of the entire pyramid scheme".
  • Tribes compensate for having no concept of outsiders' feelings, intentions or shared interests -- by making a big show of internal efforts. Tribes go to a lot of trouble to maintain their rituals, honor, norms and solidarity which keeps them much too busy to consider what they don't understand. Likewise institutions sponsor phenomenal amounts of busywork that preempts diplomacy or dialogue with "actual customers". Both support a condition of "arrested development", legacy practices and policy conformity.
  • Tribes validate acting out frustrations, making enemies and "bad boy antics" which results from emotional baggage. Tribes make it seem normal to be at war, in conflict and under siege as if they are doing nothing to provoke and perpetuate the animosities. Institutions harbor these same dynamics internally as office politics, turf battles and sabotage of change efforts. There are no expectations to acquire emotional intelligence, resolve one's own issues or outgrown patterns of hostility.
  • Tribes are effectively self serving and self preserving because they are incapable of serving common causes with outsiders . They look after their own kind at the expense of non-members and those they have outcast from within their ranks. Institutions provide this same opportunity to dismiss dissenters, demonize market mechanisms, and disrupt cooperative networks.
What I realized from all these synergies is how amazing institutions really are. They accommodate the tribal mindset that otherwise appears untamed, uncivilized and unmanageable. Institutions have accomplished amazing feats of societal advancement, infrastructure development and economic stabilization. All this has been done with a rank and file workforce in no better psychological condition than members of warring tribes. When we look at how problematic institutions appear to be from so many different perspectives, we're missing out on the solutions it provides and processes it effectively serves.


  1. The placement of tribes vs institutions and spotting the tribal accomodation inside the institution is remarkably lucid. May I point also to the inevitability of this situation since, like the reptile brain, our tribal instinct is planted firmly *inside* the construct of the institution. No wonder then that the accomodation is so elegant.
    Do you likewise seem some (perhaps illusory) linear increase in complexity? Is there a scale of complexity from the cellular>individual>familia>tribal>institutional?

    This question only seems important for certian types of intervention, eg. to foster the conditions in which further complex evolution will be nurtured. How do institutions grow a sense of enlightened self interest? What's the next complex form past institutions? etc...

  2. Thanks for these wonderful questions! Through a cognitive lens, I see a progression from the "reptile brain" to include the rationality of the "left brain"which gets nurtured by institutional policies, procedures, penalties and promotions. The "right brain" adds another level of complexity which can handles innovation, entrepreneurship, exceptional service to customers which get nurtured by the competitive marketplace. It's through this grasp of unmet customer needs and unfilled market niches that "enlightened self interest" emerges. This dynamic occurs within institutions by participation in temporary task forces, cross-disciplinary projects, roles that bridge across departments, etc.

    Through a child development lens, I see individuality as a late stage development. The initial complexity occurs between an infant and mother. This gets complicated by incorporating the father, siblings, family elders. Next comes friends, playmates, etc. Then "transitional objects" like teddy bears, cartoon characters, etc serve to develop a sense of separate identity, uniqueness, individuality. When we rely exclusively on shared identities, the formation of this self-concept failed to take hold.

    I've also explored a sequence of increasing complexity in a post titled Emergent forms of TIMN.

    Thanks again for connecting to my ongoing exploration!