Tribalism at work


Like many people, I’ve been struggling a great deal with understanding what is happening in our world, and how to make sense of it.  Many years ago, when I was younger, I myself had a somewhat narcissistic view of the world. The frame in which I absorbed interactions in my life was one that was exclusionary of large groups of people around me. When I say this you’re probably thinking I’m talking about the makers and takers we hear being thrown about in the news media, but I’m talking about something much closer to home, I’m talking about programmers vs artists, or programmers vs clients, or maybe programmers vs management.

The programmers vs. whatever argument/though process is one that many of us are familiar with, and have no fear if you’re not a programmers, in all likelihood, it applies to you too. Maybe it’s artists vs. programmers, or you’re a manager who hasn’t understood the behavior of those alien creatures, the engineers. Our brains are particularly well suited for categorizing groups of things, and so its no surprise that we do it with people as well. Fighting this tendency is a fool’s errand, it’s far to convenient to group people together for me to argue that this is something we should fret about. What I do believe people need to do is not use the simplicity of categorization and grouping to discard the incentives, needs, and desires of whole groups of people.

My own journey

Early in my career in video games, I had a far more confrontational relationship with the other groups or specialization. If management asked us to make changes to the design of a product at a late point in the development cycle, the thought process for me immediately went to something along the lines of “Typical PhB management, if they had just thought about the design ahead of time, then they wouldn’t be making last minute changes, and I wouldn’t be here working late. Their lack of consideration caused me to have to work long hours, and this probably happened because there are no consequences for them in making these decisions. They get to go home at 5, and I’m here working late, so fuck ’em.”

This sort of thought process is not unusual, and it’s perfectly understandable. What it is *not* is effective, even if it may contain some truth. At some point in my career, I decided to take the energy that I had put into feeling resentment or annoyance at these sorts of events and try and channel them into something more productive. Part of what triggered this change is my own maturity and awareness, in starting to see the same behavior in myself when the artists would have to re-do a large portion of their art because we refactored a tool, or would have to stay late as they struggled with the terrible UX and non-existent documentation for whatever tool we had cobbled together. This led me to change the way I think about the work that I do, to re-frame all of these various stakeholders as my customers. Once I started thinking about the art team less as a group making demands on my time, but instead as a group of people, just like the programming team, who are trying to deliver the product that they do best (art) to clients (management and our end users), then I was able to empathize with their plight.


This change in thinking was revolutionary for me, both in my own effectiveness as a programmer and manager, but also in my own happiness and satisfaction with life. I was no longer waking up every day pitching for a fight, but instead was waking up every day thinking about how I may be able to improve the life of someone else. I imagined being an artist, working on some piece of in-game art for a few days, and then being discouraged when I had to fight the tools for a week to get my art into the game, just to have it look shitty when I did. My job as a programmer became one of empathy, where I was being given an opportunity to tangible change how someone worked each day, and in some ways, that was one of the more meaningful things I could spend my day doing. It gave me the ability to not just wait for a request, and then try to minimize the amount of time I spent trying to satisfy that request, to instead trying to understand what the artists struggled with each day in performing their work, and how I could contribute to that. This led to solutions that were not a response to a specific complaint (which is a rather narrow way at looking at features of software), but instead were an attempt at improving how people worked. If we made a skeletal animation tool that required the artists to label a bunch of bones on their skeleton, and it crashed often, then I would get requests to try and fix the crash. The correct question for me is not “What is causing the crash?”, but “Why do we have this tool in the first place? Is it necessary? Do we need the artists to be labeling bones? This should be something a computer can do.” This kills 2 birds with one stone, I don’t need to fix shitty bugs any longer, and the artist no longer needs to spend time labeling bones. It is not a solution that would have become apparent with the old mindset, but is one that is painfully obvious when I start thinking about the artists as customers.


The way I consider artists or producers, as customers of my software, may not resonate with you, and that’s OK. Find some other way to frame it that does resonate with you. This doesn’t mean that you need to stop making snarky comments about management or the art team, but it does mean that you shouldn’t let those snarky comments frame your entire way of thinking, as its far too easy to let that turn confrontational. The reality is that you’re all on the same team, working on the same product, and even if you don’t personally like every member of the team, that’s OK too. You don’t need to be friends, but you’re still going to be working together, so why make it unpleasant? This kind of thinking has started penetrating the other areas of my life as well. If someone cuts me off on the road, my thought is less “Fuck that guy, he’s driving he’s like an asshole, and now I’m inconvenienced because I had slow down” to something more like “Wow, I wonder why he’s in such a hurry? It must be important! Maybe I’ll let him merge and give him a wave, it may calm him down and hopefully make whatever important thing he’s rushing to a bit easier.” We’re all human, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that I’ve managed to become sort of super pleasant and thoughtful angel of a human being, I still struggle with many of the frames everyone else does, and sometimes I am thinking “Fuck that guy, now I have to work late”, but trying to have empathy, and approaching relationships in my life trying to imagine how the person on the other side of the table sees the world, and having a default assumption if someone is doing something that seems to have no purpose other than to annoy me, then the most likely explanation is *not* that I’m omnipotent and that they’re just trying to bring me down and prevent me from working, but is instead that I must not understand how they see the world, I don’t know what their incentives are, and that I should work harder to understand them. In the end, I may still come to the conclusion that they are trying to bring me down and prevent me from working, but that should not be the default assumption. In the vast majority of cases, there isn’t ill-will or malicious intent, but instead a lack of clarity on both sides, and more understanding and clarification will only improve things.

This thought process is important to me, and I hope that more people than I suspect share this sort of viewpoint. It takes a lot of work and vigilance to maintain this viewpoint, but when I do, I find I’m a happier person. In these times of uncertainty, hate, and vitriol towards the “other”, I think it is important that those of us who are willing to spend the time to understand and improve our relations with other people do so. The more divisions we sow, the more difficult it will be for us all to get back to place where we can all just do what we want to be doing. So with that, back to work….