Individualism versus togetherness

Companies ask themselves how they can get the best out of their employees. They assign mentors and counselors, they develop an individual development plan, and they assess employees against each other fostering competition. All of this should help the company to be more efficient and profitable. But what if that focus on the individual is only the second-best plan?

I don’t want to argue that this strategy has its benefits. Both, for the company and the employee. For the company it is easier to assess its workforce and to determine who will be promoted and who don’t. For the employee it is the trust of being in a meritocracy that much work will be rewarded. That he or she is supported and developed which will ultimately increase his or her value.

But I want to stop here and ask a question. When do we really work for ourselves? Without any meetings or input or help from others? Of course, there are those jobs, but in my experience, we tend to work in teams. Then, it isn’t so much about the individual performance any longer, but the team performance. Now, what make successful teams? There are a couple of factors such as the size of the team and resources they get, but there are softer factors which play a crucial role in team success. In her TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan names three characteristics of highly successful teams:

  1. team member show high degrees of social sensitivity to each other
  2. team member give roughly equal time to each other
  3. more women in the team

I will focus on the first two characteristics, because I think that women, in general, are better at making sure that everyone gets his or her fair share of time and that they are also often more empathetic then men. Moreover, those two points are more suitable in making my point =)

So, on the one hand, they promote individualism and competition. And on the other hand, they put together teams and want them to be successful. This can and does work, but I also think that this is a strain on many relationships at work. And it is definitely not something very sustainable. In a team effort, it is often difficult to assess the individual contribution. Then, when it comes to assessments and promotions it can lead to envy and aversion within a team.

But how to do it differently? I think a good way to start is to increase the significance of group effort over individual performance. If you want to have empathetic employees who take care of each other and who work together as a real team, you need to design the system in a way that this behaviour is encouraged. I doubt that it is in a lot of companies at the moment. Furthermore, you show which culture you want to have by the people you promote. If you promote the person who is doing everything by himself or herself and is only focused on looking good him-/herself, then you probably won’t get the best of your teams. I would also give more power and responsibility to the team. Let them discuss the performance of each other. Of course, this has its dangers as well and needs to be implemented carefully and the process needs to be facilitated wisely. But, once in place, you have an assessment process which is fairer, because you are evaluated by the people you work with.

Many people are fed up and tired by alpha men and women who only look after their own interests. People want to collaborate and to support each other. But if that is not appreciated and valued, I can understand that people just do work as assigned without putting in the extra effort they would be capable of. And in her talk, Margaret Heffernan gives a wonderful example what will happen if you strive for a company with people who are incredible individual performers but all at the expense of others.


Have a wonderful day and take care!



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