People Don't Quit Their Jobs, They Quit Their Bosses

Building a Team in an Individualist Society

Let me break it to you, building a productive team is not as easy as it appears. It is layers deeper than simply positioning members. And it is certainly not about dressing them out in the same set of clothing or vests. It’s more about motivation, cross-cultural competence, communication, and synergy. When or if you are charged with putting one together, it has to be well thought out. If you are like just about anyone else, you’d simply pick the best individual “players” of the litter with the intention to make them a strong and cohesive team. But here is the thing, cohesion in a competitive environment goes against every extinct of an individualist society. Let me explain: People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are most important. But then there are collectivists, and they see it vastly different. In terms of a collectivist culture, it relates to the principles of giving a group priority over each individual within it. Groups of people like Asian cultures, Hawaiian culture, Indian, some Central American, African, and Native or Aboriginal societies, are all taught early on that the group is far more important than the one. That their last name, those that share it, and its history are not to be shamed. Because of this, their entire culture is disciplined and cooperative.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” ~African Proverb

Conversely, with individualist cultures, it goes without saying. Its principles stress the goals of the individual and the rights of the individual person. Individualist cultures find their oxygen in North America, most of Europe, South Africa, and Australia. They are renegades and color outside the lines. There are some tremendous benefits from this cultural mindset. Innovation and competition that lead to generational discoveries can run rampant. But building or reining in a team from individualists is far more difficult than obviously of collectivists. Because with individuals, they will even upstage a tribesman for the purpose of pending glory or reward, where a traditional collectivist would rather cede victory to a teammate to maintain unity.

In the individualist ecosystem, parents have taught, disciplined, and outright cheated to pave way for their child to win or be highlighted in some form or fashion. The mindset ingrains in the thought patterns of a child which progressively propagates a me-first attitude and all-or-none mentality. So how do leaders build cohesion from these types?

1. Host a Boot Camp-like experience
2. Assign group leaders to new arrivals
3. Maintain a “Team is as Strong as the Weakest Link” concept.

My hypothesis is that individualist societies secretly downplay the idea of team but envy the relational culture of collectivists. There are certainly opportunities when contrasting the two concepts to find middle-ground where they can both coexist. Keeping that in mind, here are four overall themes to consider when building your team: your approach, motivation, relationships, and reinforcement. When courting individualists each theme has to be respected and, in both cultures, there can be a risk if you do not. The extreme of collectivism is mediocrity. While an extreme for individualists would be selfishness or self-centeredness. The manner in which you find balance among this cultural divide will become the strength of your team’s development.

Shifting from an Individualist Mindset

To shift the individualist paradigm may require guerrilla tactics as I suggested with a boot camp-like scenario to reprogram the mindset. Or you will have to embed heavy influencers to guide or enforce accountability to others. The idea that we are a sum of all of our parts, takes the focus off of individual achievements and firmly places it on the team. It will be your job to nurture that mentality. This is not an easy task, especially if an organization or team promotes or rewards based on individual successes–a norm for individualists. Our animal instinct supports the survival of the fittest–even if that means leaving teammates behind. But if that same promotion or reward was weighed primarily on the overall team’s performance, it would drive the sustainable collaboration you are trying to inculcate.

So how can we learn from collectivists? Some of the core concepts are cooperation, discipline, and living by a set of shared goals and values. I’m not suggesting communist ideals on collectivization. And certainly, I am not a proponent of rewarding mediocre performance for the purpose of building a team. But I am suggesting creating a mindset that is “team-first”. That means instilling cooperation and a cooperative environment where teammates want to work together and are incentivized for their efforts to move them closer to a team-first mentality. It also means maintaining strict performance protocols where their activity requires a wingman.  For instance, medical professionals check each other’s work. It is an essential strength of their profession and can be replicated anywhere. It all but guarantees the work will be accurate. It also cultivates trust among colleagues. This is the kind of team integrity and discipline that becomes baked into the system. For example, early in my career, I was responsible for securing CLASSIFIED materials for lodging overnight aircrews that were transiting through the airbase. The crew of 6-8 members flew together. And, it was essential that they remain together. By policy, we would have to jump through hoops to coordinate their union–even if it meant spending more money to guarantee it happened. I’m a firm believer that policy boxes you in. But when you are intentionally or deliberately trying to maintain a team concept, writing in your intent can prevent the natural migration from norms. You can assume in an individualist-thinking society that this can get away from you and be stolen in the middle of the night.

And finally, published, communicated, and reinforced shared goals that are SMART and known by every employee sets an atmosphere of team. The paradigm shifts its focus when the team results get acknowledged rather than individual successes. You see–goals and values are essential to understanding what is important to the company. It details the activities and its culture. Teams thrive in a firmly established culture because of the identifiable guardrails, acceptable communication, and what success looks like. Goals, by nature, assign accountability, thresholds, and give the team direction. Realistically, each individual is responsible for a certain task and should be held accountable to it; but with a collectivist mentality, the reward and discipline, for that matter, will be focused on collective results. This forces a “strong as your weakest link” mindset. Incentivizing a team-first mentality in an individualist society is tantamount to forcing an aircraft carrier’s u-turn. It will eventually get there but it will be a minute. As a leader, be patient to see this through.

Benefits of Promulgating “Team-First”

There are four aspects that will be immediately noticeable when it is locked in. You will observe Solidity or solidarity. Teammates come to the rescue of others and there is an overall feeling that harming a single individual in the group means harming the whole group. You will observe Assistance. Since a single person’s problem is everyone’s problem in a collectivist group, help can be effortlessly obtained, including brainstorming and problem-solving. You will notice Harmony. When your team is fully bought-in, petty differences are immediately diffused or eliminated. Inter-personal relationships will form, thrive, and extend beyond the office hours. As well, you will notice Endorsed Selflessness. This core value becomes foundational and an anchor for the team. A bought-in team will recognize a teammate rather than to bring more attention to themselves.

Culture shifts are difficult. It means doing something different over and over until it is refrozen. As a leader, having the competence that individualist societies live and breathe an inward mentality that bucks at the idea of team because each individual is looking to capitalize on their one opportunity. This means picking those that will buy-in to the system.  Just remember, it’s not about the physical players, jerseys, or co-location that make up a team, it’s the mentality.

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