Helping Your Tribe Be Healthy

Not Going Away

I think of tribes the same way I think about power. Despite how zealously people may go after anything that looks like hierarchy these days, the realist in me is convinced that there will always be some people with more power than others. Like it or not. Assuming this as an ongoing reality, the question becomes, “If I am one who possesses power, how should I use it redemptively?

Part of the answer to this question must surely be in how we lead the groups over whom we have influence. A few years ago I enjoyed reading Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright’s book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups To Build A Thriving Organization. Drawing from some concepts connected to theories like spiral dynamics, they describe what it looks like for people to be in various stages of wellbeing, and how as a leader you might help them along to a next level.

Given the current nature of tribalism in our country, with an endless rabbit hole of intersectional identities, I think we are wise to think of tribes as a given. Knowing that people are going to continue to sort themselves into likeminded–or perhaps even likebodied–groups, we should think about a similar question: How do we help our individual groups be healthier in how they look both at themselves and the world?

Basic Movements Toward Health

There are several basic movements we would want to see in our people’s understanding and practices that are indicative of better health. I will summarize these, then I’ll do a breakdown of the five stages of tribes described by the authors.

  1. An increasingly external focus. At the lowest levels of functioning, human beings are concerned primarily with survival. Even as basic needs are met, we may still remain focused internally on ourselves and our preferences. At our highest levels of functioning, we are concerned with the greater good and how we can connect ourselves to it.
  2. An increasing sense of hope. Human beings are capable of incredible things, especially when we come together and bring out the best in each other. The more we believe this is not only possible but valuable the more we function well. Problems are not seen as universal and permanent, but as specific and changeable. They become obstacles to overcome, not insurmountable walls.
  3. An increasing connection to the world beyond our tribe. While it is great to have a healthy and productive group, a next step is for us to move beyond the need for a group identity that makes us feel competitive with other similar groups. We can be glad to see other groups also functioning in healthy ways.

None of Self and All of Thee

The movement of stages is reminiscent of the old hymn None of Self and All of Thee. The last line of each verse represents a person’s movement away from selfishness toward the love of God in their life.

  • “All of self, and none of Thee”
  • “Some of self, and some of Thee”
  • “Less of self, and more of Thee”
  • “None of self, and all of Thee”

I’ve oft heard the joke that someone leading worship ought to lead the song and sing the verses in reverse order. Probably wouldn’t go over well, but would make an interesting story.

The Five Stages Of A Tribe

Here is a chart with the basic flow of the stages, starting at the bottom moving toward the top. It is absolutely the case that within any larger group, you’ll have many of these mentalities represented. It is also likely that your people with these various mentalities will seek each other out. It could be that your whole group is more homogenous because the culture makes one of these ways of thinking the norm for the group. I will share some suggestions for how to identify where your people are on this spectrum and how to help them move from one to the next.

These are adapted from the five stages shared in Tribal Leadership.

Stage One: “Life Stinks”

People in this stage are likely close to poverty and crime. Life is despair. It is hard to imagine anything good in the world because they see so little of it.

How To Help:

  • Encourage people to go where the action is. Everyone needs to get away from their own spaces from time to time. Perspective and a little fresh air go a long way in promoting sanity.
  • Help them see how life works. Different choices lead to different results. Notice: Not everyone’s life stinks!
  • Help them cut ties with people who keep them in this mindset, that all of life is terrible and hopeless.

Stage Two: “My Life Stinks”

This is the stage I think you are more likely to begin to encounter in a church setting. Most people going to church have–hopefully–at least some sense of better possibilities in the world. People in this stage feel like victims. “Everyone has it better than me.” They look around and see others with power which they don’t possess. They may make heavy uses of sarcasm and show apathy toward opportunity.

How To Help:

  • Encourage them to make friends who can serve as good partners. Who is a step or two beyond them who could help them not only see what is possible, but how to get there.
  • As they improve, connect them to someone whom they could mentor. Recognizing they’ve grown will motivate them to grow more.
  • Be lavish in your praise for where they do make a good impact. If you must offer suggestions for improvement, be gentle.
  • Give them tasks and projects in which they can succeed with little follow-up needed.

Stage Three: “I’m Great (And You’re Not)”

Stage Three is an especially interesting one. It is a marked improvement from the first two stages, but it is also the hardest hurdle to overcome. The authors suggest it will take a sort of epiphany to get a person in Stage Three to break through into higher thinking.

Stage three will likely involve a series of dyadic relationships. The person has worked hard to get where they are. There must be some area of significant competence to gain a sense of personal worth. “Here’s a thing I know I can do well.”

Dyadic Relationships are One-to-One

They likewise see the benefits of being connected to other people, though they don’t think yet like a team player. They think of most of their connections in terms of what can be reciprocal about the relationship. Either it’s someone they are helping out (makes me look good) or it’s someone who can help them out (I can’t get further ahead without them).

This is a fundamentally competitive phase, especially as it pertains to other people in the same stage. People in this stage are like cowboys in the wild west, all trying to get ahead and to be “the best.” They are playing a game they believe is finite.

People in Stage Three will need to learn the value of Triad relationships. These involve:

Triadic Relationship involve greater blending and complexity
  • Shared core values
  • Overlapping Interests
  • Opportunities where one’s talents help the work of the other

How To Help:

  • Encourage a Stage Three person to tackle projects too big for any one person alone to accomplish.
  • Point out successes and show appreciation, but also help them to see role model figures operating at more of a “we” level than a “me” level.
  • Tell them stories about successful moves to Stage Four.
  • Coach that real value comes from networks and cooperation, not just personal mastery or knowledge.
  • Help them become “over-communicators” rather than guardians of their information.

Stage Four: “We’re Great (And They’re Not)”

People operating at Stage four have solid triads in place. They have relationships with others not based on power acquisition but on shared values and common goals. When clustered together, Stage Four people radiate tribal pride in what they are collectively.

All in all, Stage Four people are great to have around. They function as a team. They accomplish big things. But there still remains some sense of competitiveness, not with each other, but with other teams out there trying to do something similar. The Stage Three desire to say “I’m the best” becomes a collective goal of claiming “We’re the best.” This still remains a mentality locked–to a lesser degree–into a finite game mentality.

How To Help:

  • Make sure that the triads in place are based on values, advantages, and opportunities in a way that is focused on the greater good.
  • Use strategy processes with the team. What are our assets? What can our assets accomplish? What behaviors are necessary to do this?
  • Recruit others to the tribe who share the values of the group.
  • In difficulties, point to others outside for solutions.
  • Freshen up processes and procedures. What works? What can we improve? To whom can we look for an example of this done well?

Stage Five: “Life is Great”

There is no longer a “they” to worry about. We are not competing. We are simply doing what we believe matters. There is a sense of “innocent wonderment” at what people can accomplish together. We love it when our group does it, but we are just as happy to see other groups accomplish great collective achievements of value and beauty.

God Is Great

The book is written primarily with the workplace in mind, but I see great value for how churches think about helping our members grow. Here are some ways I think the Gospel provides us with a high calling toward Stage Five living:

  • The invitation of the Gospel is to go deeper in our understanding of the love of God. This is a love that drives us to look beyond ourselves and to ask how we can lift others up.
  • It is an invitation to be part of something larger than ourselves, with efforts that came before us and will continue after us.
  • To see the church thriving in other places, or even nearby, produces joy for us, and not merely a desire to prove we are a “better” church than they are.
  • Our competencies are not for ourselves, but for the good of others.
  • When we believe that God is the one weaving all things together for good, we see the world’s problems as temporary and solvable.
  • When we have worked together to bring glory to God, and have seen God’s helping hand, there is a sense of wonder that God has worked through us–even us.

Other Posts You Might Enjoy:

title church and the infinite game
Set the theme of the post what everyone needs
Stack Your Skill Sets


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.