How workplace ‘tribes’ influence attitudes to digital

 In Change management, Digital Transformation

Getting people to buy into digital behaviours can’t be achieved by telling them how to behave. You need to understand how they THINK.

Emotions and how we think, determines what we choose to hear and what we see as true. People want to fit in and we have a natural tendency to herd and mimic the behaviours of the herd. In every situation, including work, there are many ‘herds’ you can join – the ones we choose to join determine a huge part of our identity. People self-organise into in-groups and out-groups over the smallest thing. Research has shown things as small as preferences for shirt colour can act as a distinction. Social ties have a massive influence on how we think.

Our chosen herd sets our acceptable behaviours and attitudes. There is a lot of ‘you should be’ in being in a herd. Once we form a narrative we become very attached to it and it causes us pain to let go of it. To protect ourselves from that pain, we seek out information to confirm how right our herd narrative is.  Any possibility to gravitate to alternative ways of being is blocked. No matter how good your communications piece or newsletter is in promoting new behaviours, if the herd says no then you are talking to an empty room.

Herd mentality is impossibly hard to unpick and there are many factors which keep it firmly in place.

  • When we’re part of a tribe we work to portray an image of ourselves that is socially desirable to the tribe. We present the image we think is desired or expected by the group.
  • Shame adds another layer of complexity. People are going to do whatever they can to avoid social embarrassment.
  • Then add to that the fact that people hang out with people with similar views to themselves. Research has shown, for example, that obese people tend to be friends with obese people, with some media articles claiming obesity is socially contagious.
  • And finally, tech now allows us to build echo-chambers to further confirm that everyone thinks just like us. Someone says something you don’t like? Unfollow and those alternative perspectives are hidden. Algorithms help you along your journey to an unchallenging world. We become more and more entrenched.

And how did we approach digital??

Organisations started experimenting with digital, when they didn’t know it was going to be a thing, by making it a separate entity. Organisations had digital departments and teams – usually with table football tables, beanbags and sharpies. Digital became its own pretty cool tribe. Now, this is great to catch innovators and early adopters but now we’re what we at Arc like to call ‘Post Digital’ which means digital isn’t a separate thing anymore and we all need to see it as BAU (business-as-usual).

So now organisations need to entice everyone to new digital behaviours?? But the herd thing has caused a problem.  This is what happens…

Credit to @donberwick and illustrated by @voinonen


It’s become them and us. To most employees in legacy organisations digital is for those trendy people over there, not us over here who are quite happy as we are. By putting the digital types in the basement, with their own lingo, dress code e ceremonies. We’ve created tribes that have left out the vast majority of the long-serving workforce from the ways of being they need for today’s digital world.  The non-digital group has formed a group identity that it’s 0k to ignore digital. Which isn’t very helpful for either side. Whoops.

How we launched digital has divided us not united us. In launching digital, we launched a digital identity that wasn’t very inclusive, but let’s not beat ourselves up about it as we didn’t know digital would become BAU.

Change that sticks

Now we’ve got to get psychological and look at how people think. Your audience Is not a blank slate to pour a new idea into. Correcting misconceptions by providing more facts + evidence ignores the emotional attachment to identify. Identity Is a key factor that is making this more than a comms challenge. It’s an identity challenge and that needs stories.  We need to give people a new story for themselves with digital in it. We need to tell them what new role they play whilst avoiding at all costs any communications that feeds the ‘them and us’ divide around digital behaviours. Instead, make new behaviours natural + desirable, just a natural extension of the way we do things around here.

The narrative needs to pivot and be more about an extension of what we do today. A natural way of working, evolution of now as we’ve always changed. Stop it being revolutionary – it’s evolution not revolution (see my previous blog post). It’s no different to how we can now pause live TV, how we don’t have to sit at home waiting for the phone to ring or how we can use sat nav to get from A to B. The world just keeps on evolving and that’s nothing new. Dropping all the doom and gloom and revolutionary speak that went with first phase of digital.

Here’s how we at Arc help clients get to a new story

  1. Employee Persona mapping

Knowing the tribes you have in your organisation helps with change as it means you get to know their motivations, language and attitudes towards change and you get to understand what social norms your organisation is working to. This is where employee personas work is worth its weight in gold. Employee persona research uses interviews and research to understand who your employee groups are and how they think. See my post on using employee personas for change. There is a lot of variance in how we react to digital and looking at your workforce as different groups allow you to build a heat map for change.

Everyone is self-editing their view of the world and suffers from the curse of knowledge (Steven Pinker), so the most enlightening way to get to know your employee groups is with outside eyes.  Get someone like Arc in to help you get to know your tribes and how to land change with them.

  1. Social proof

Social norms stick around for longer than they are needed. They get held in place purely because everyone thinks that’s what everyone else thinks so you need to design a behaviour change programme that uses a series of nudges to set them free. This happens not just through words but also through experiences and social proof.  Seeing is believing.

Your challenge is to make it socially undesirable to do negative or revert to old ways and that takes a mix of psychology and design thinking. Designing the workplace to make it easier and more pleasing to behave in new ways. Making that new experience fun and nudge the new behaviours into each tribes social norms. Finding the nudges and work-based opportunities that will move people towards the new. Work with what is there rather than blindly against it. Find experiences to get them involved in on their terms. Dig below the surface to break up those social norms.

  1. A story with meaning

These days you can’t get away with a bullet point list of reasons to change – you need words that create the right emotional responses. You need to tell stories. Assuming that one message is received by the whole organisation is naive so you need to craft one big story but also little stories for each tribe to connect with. Your persona work helps massively with that.

Employees aren’t after instruction manuals, they are after meaning. Words position concepts within their social norm which means words matter as do the narratives you use. Use them to inspire and connect not bore. For more advice on stories with meaning see my blog post on using values to take employees with you.


If you would like our help understanding the employee personas at play in your organisations or with the wider narrative to make change happen then please get in touch. We’d love to talk to you.

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