Building Culture: Naming, Symbols, Rituals, Stories

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

Your team will Build a Tribal Identify Anyway. Better to Build it Consciously

You’re Going To Get A Tribal Identity: Pay Attention

If you put a group of people together for any length of time, even a few minutes, they will start to form what we might call a tribal identity. They will start to agree amongst themselves, quite unconsciously “this is who we are”.

Think of a group of strangers stranded at an airport gate. Very quickly the group will decide: “we are lost” or “we are helpless” or “we are heroes and we’re not going to take this any more”. These “decisions” won’t be made explicitly or with much discussion — they will happen as the people in the group pick up on the moods and intentions and characters of the people around them.

In a previous post, I stated that Culture is You. That is: the culture of your organization is largely defined by what you believe and value, and how that is transmitted through your actions.

The “tribal identity” of your organization is the “who we are” representation of that culture. It will begin to form around the values that you hold and are transmitting. This process starts as soon as you begin to put your organization together, whether you want it to or not, and whether you are paying attention or not.

Tribal identity is incredibly strong: a company I had a hand in starting twenty years ago still feels the same when I walk in — the “energy” is the same, the lobby has the same creative vibe, but neither I, nor my generation of the exec team have worked with for years. Google people are still Google people; Apple people Apple people.

The very strength of tribal identity provides a framework for establishing a culture that can withstand change, growth and the inevitable turnover of key players

Here are a few mechanisms that strengthen and build the tribal identity of an organization. Bear in mind that these mechanisms will happen anyway, so the more you are aware of them, the more you can consciously build an identity you want and are proud of.


“We are…”. The most powerful tool of all (Biblical, in fact). Product names, team names, code names, conference room names, titles — these are identities. People take on the tones of the names that the organization uses.

Google’s very name is a technical in-joke (the name was a misspelling which turned out to be available as a domain). Witty, clever, technical, eccentric — it’s baked into the name.

“We are…” what? Warriors? Poets? Artists? Craftspeople? You get to choose who you are.

What actions and moods do the names of your teams suggest? When you want a team to move fast, what do you call it?

Notice how your team describes themselves now. Is that what you want?


What symbols do you use? What’s on your walls? What’s the first thing visitors see when they come to meet with you?