People from different professions often have different ways of solving unforeseen problems. Good teamwork is based on a balanced exchange of services and solutions. (Photo: Colourbox)

Modern workplaces function as tribal communities

Modern working relationships on construction sites do not only rely on designs, drawings and schedules. Problems and disagreements are solved using the same unwritten rules that tribal communities use for creating harmony.

When workers from different professions try to reach agreement on unexpected problems on construction sites, they use the same underlying dynamics as tribal communities in Indonesia.

This became clear to Martin Pedersen, a PhD student of psychology at Aarhus University, during his two years of fieldwork at a Danish construction site.

In short, the principle from the tribal communities says that when you receive a gift from another tribe, you assume the obligation not only to receive it, but also to reciprocate with an equivalent gift if you want to maintain the friendship and the good working relationship.

Whereas the tribal communities exchanged materials such as shells and wood, the workers at the construction site exchanged services and solutions.

You give what you get
Polynesian tribes exchanged gifts to form alliances and friendships. (Illustration: John Webber)

”I discovered that the co-operation is negotiated and regulated based on what I call ’give and take’ relations. These negotiations came as a surprise to me. I noticed an obligation to give and receive. And people are obliged to reciprocate with a gift of the same value as the one they receive,” explains Pedersen.

“If one group has its solution approved, this group is obliged to consider the other group’s solution at a later time. Otherwise the collaboration may end up in a conflict.”

A general principle in interdisciplinary teamwork

This form of problem solving is not limited to construction sites, as similar studies have pointed toward the same trend:

”This indicates that this is a general principle in all interdisciplinary co-operation.”

We use tribal logic in our daily lives

The dynamics of gift exchange play a central role in families, friendships and romantic relationships.

If you help your friend to sort out the engine of his car, you would probably expect some pizza or some other favour from your friend in return.

The same applies if you buy a round in the pub, a thoughtful birthday present or a good massage.

Disagreements between workers from different professions often arise as a result of different perspectives, values and interests within the group when problems need to be solved, he explains, mentioning an example:

An architect at the construction site had sketched large windows so the rooms would be filled with light. But the engineer argued that large windows would result great expenses for heating.

The unwritten rules for gift exchange implied that if the architects decided to go for the engineers’ solution, the engineers had to reciprocate with an equivalent contribution at a later point in the work process.

Gift exchange creates harmony

This exchange of gifts creates a balance among people from different professions and thus also creates harmony.

The basic rules of gift exchange

  1. You have an obligation to accept a gift from another tribe. If the gift is rejected, the friendship and the alliance break down. This could lead to conflicts and war.


  1. The recipient of a gift is obliged to reciprocate with an equivalent gift to maintain the harmony between the tribes.

One day on the construction site, an electrician had mistakenly drilled through an iron pipe that had been installed by a plumber. This left the electrician with an obligation.

The following day, the electrician rearranged the cables so that the plumber no longer needed to bend the pipes. This was a ‘gift’ to the plumber to balance the accounts. If these norms had been broken, it would lead to conflicts between the different groups of professions.

Building design affected by gift exchange

We normally imagine that all work processes at a construction site run according to drawings and schedules. So the researcher was surprised to observe how the negotiations led to changes in the ongoing construction work.

”I had certainly not expected to see that. To the naked eye the building still appears as it did in the drawings. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that a wall may have been repositioned, a pillar has been moved or the lamps are hanging a bit differently.”

In this way the gift exchange makes a visible difference to the finished construction.

Do like tribal people and avoid conflicts

Based on his findings, Pedersen believes it is important to exchange gifts in order to achieve trouble-free co-operation between workers from different professions. Gift exchange is about recognition and identity, and there needs to be a balance between what you give and what you take.

”If you simply refuse to consider an alternative perspective on things, then you’re not giving anything back – and that can result in conflicts,” he says.

So to achieve a smooth working relationship, it may be a good idea to take a look at how tribal people create harmony among the various tribes.

The key is to compromise and accept that sometimes you need to give and sometimes you need to take.


Read the Danish version of this article at

Translated by: Dann Vinther

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