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Tuesday Insight: Individualism vs Collectivism


On Saturday, The Guardian reported a generational divide on the question of whether we should pay more tax to finance, amongst other things, the NHS. For me, it highlighted the great challenge of the human condition – the eternal conflict between what’s best for us individually, and what’s best for us collectively. When we’re young and struggling to get a foothold on the property ladder, we want low taxes. When we’re old, and need more support from the NHS, we’re happy for taxes to be increased – particularly if we’re retired and perhaps won’t be paying them.

This battle between individualism and collectivism was also reflected in the recent riots in France – at least at the beginning. Whilst tax increases on fuel might help the climate (collectivism) ultimately people are concerned about their own, immediate day-to-day lives (individualism). They might be sceptical about the real benefits to society of increased fuel costs anyway, when some people still appear to be in denial about climate change. Talking of which, in America, I’d argue that it was ‘Me First’ branded as ‘America First’ that led to Donald Trump being elected.

The challenge of balancing individual and collective needs doesn’t just exist at a national level – it exists in each of our organisations too. I’m sure, like me, you’ve witnessed organisations where individuals work in their own bubbles and individual reward is king. The problem is that when people are solely focused on ‘what’s in it for me’, the results can be catastrophic. Perhaps the most eye-popping example of the dangers of individualism within organisations was the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995.

Great leaders, in my view, are those who can most successfully square the circle between individualism and collectivism. By which, I mean leaders who can reward, recognise and celebrate individual performance but also align their team behind shared goals that they all care about and, most importantly, believe in.

And herein lies another challenge – we often describe great leaders as visionary, which suggests and supports the idea of goals coming from the top and being ‘imposed’. But can imposed goals ever truly be shared? Do people often believe in a vision that was imposed on them?

Great leaders lead, but people follow leaders only when they believe in the destination and share their leader’s desire to reach it. (Which partly explains Theresa May’s woes – her destination is a compromise that no-one truly believes in.) 


The only way to know if you and your team share a desire to reach the same destination, is to ask them. The danger here, of course, is that ask ten people where they want to go, and you might get ten different answers!

A useful tool that can help align people is a framework of core values (or as we call them, Passions) which form the basis of your destination and a foundation for shared goals. Ours are to be Innovative, Customer Focused, Team Spirited, Socially Responsible and Financially Strong. Our collective success, and our rewards, are intrinsically linked to what we deliver in all these areas working together. This Friday, we’ll be sitting down, as we have done every year since 2002, to review what our destination looks like, how we’ll get there, and the part each of us will play in helping us reach our updated destination together.

As we approach the end of another year, many other organisations will be thinking about the successes of 2018 and developing new strategies and objectives too. Which makes it a great time for you to think about how you can equip managers to balance individual and collective needs for even greater success in 2019.

Here are some tools that might help:


p.s., You might be reading this and thinking, ‘It’s easier to do what you do in a small business’ and I wouldn’t argue with that. But I’ll leave you with this thought - Even if you’ve no control over your final destination (none of us do, ultimately) we all have some control over the route we take, the fun we have and the people we take with us. That’s why working in one team can sometimes feel very different to another in the same organisation.

Until next time…

December 11 2018Rod Webb



Rod Webb





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