People, schools and workplaces in the United States exhibit a much higher degree of competitive behavior than is seen in most other countries, anywhere around the world. This is unlike what is seen in Asian countries where collective thinking is the norm. And not only are Americans more competitive than collaborative, these individualistic traits begin to show at a very early age due to the educational system’s emphasis on competitive activities and individual performance.
In the American cultural context, what I want is more important than what WE want. The number one criterion for reinforcing status and advancing one’s position in the society is personal proficiency. The individual’s effort towards promoting the wellbeing of the clan, community or family takes second place to his ability to gain personal success and recognition. As a result, people in America are inclined towards a ‘ME’ mindset in contrast to the ‘WE’ mindset that dominates societies in Asia and parts of Europe.
Living and operating in an individualistic culture presents opportunities as well as problems for people, as well as organizations. Ironically, team based activities are usually the preferred tools for nurturing the spirit of American individualism. With the result that, while on the one hand, we push the idea of the importance of working together, on the other hand, we promote values that force the team members to function as units rather than as a collective. With the result that the individual looks for opportunities to overshadow the team, monopolize its opportunities and take credit for most of its success.
So a sort of dualism exists in the American mind, where people recognize the importance of working as a group, yet want to use the group as a tool to gain personal advantage. However, in the light of current worldwide economic realities, this attitude presents significant problems; because organizations increasingly need to be in touch with themselves to survive. But this is difficult to achieve in an environment where people’s thinking is dominated by an individualistic rather than a collectivist outlook. Globalization means that organizations have to trim excess fat and discard attitudes that hamper productivity.
One key area where companies increasingly focus attention is the impact of a ‘ME’ culture on performance. Leaders are recognizing that advantages derived from competition between people are insignificant when compared to what is possible through collective action. Companies are trying to find a balance between the benefits of individuality and the gains of collectivism. As a result, many leaders are investing hugely in efforts to transform organizational culture from mindsets that may have brought success in the past but have become obsolete in the current environment.
Advantages & Disadvantages of A ‘ME’ Mindset
In an individualistic environment, the beliefs and benefits of the individual and their responsibility to themselves are viewed as more important than their responsibility to the group or the needs and beliefs of the collective. The characteristics of a ‘ME’ cultures are:
– Autonomy: Personal freedom in decision-making. Individuals are more independent.
– High degrees of privacy
– Personal Responsibility: Since there is no group involved in their project, the individual cannot leave their work to others in the group.
– Competitiveness: Fosters high levels of intra group competition, leading to improved individual performance.
– Innovation: Freedom of thought and pursuit unlock personal creativity.
– Selfishness: A high degree of assertiveness that can lead to self-centeredness
– High fear environment: Promotes paranoia and suspicion
– Low trust environment: People learn to assume that they cannot depend on other people.
– Lack of Openness: Fear and suspicion prevent people from revealing their true thoughts or feelings
– Little or no collaboration: Low degree of collective action that limits success to individual capabilities.
– Territoriality: This leads to turf wars and forming of exclusive circles.
– Inequity: A high degree of unfairness because resources are taken by the strongest.
– Blame: Even honest mistakes are punished.
The Power of A ‘WE’ Culture
In addition to cancelling out the disadvantages of a ‘ME’ culture, collaboration provides additional advantages to organizations. While in an organizational culture predominated by competition, leadership increasingly adopts command and control thinking, the same is not true for organizations built on collaboration. The collaborative organization does not have a need to use a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to get the best out of its employees. This is because members have no need to be driven toward the goal, since the vision has previously been discussed and owned by the collective.
‘We’ cultures are more likely to display the following characteristics:
– Care: Members of the group genuinely and actively care for one another.
– Nurture: As a result, they are more nurturing of one another. The result is increased overall individual happiness
– Stability: There are fewer disruptive events resulting from interpersonal conflicts, and uncontrolled ambition.
– Synergy: The members of the group instinctively find a work style and rhythm that takes full advantage of each person’s strengths and compensates for their weaknesses.
– Diversity of Thought: There is a larger pool of ideas, opinions and viewpoints from which the organization can draw. This results in well-rounded solutions.
– Self-Leadership: Because people have owned the vision and mission of the group, they are personally motivated to pursue it and have less need for a boss to look over their shoulder.
– Shared Success: Group members have no need to sabotage others because successes are shared and celebrated.
– Exponential Growth: T.E.A.M – Together Everyone Achieves More. Collaborative organizations experience this in reality. The group’s success progresses exponentially rather than mathematically; the amount of progress exceeds what can be expected from the number of its members.
An organization with a ‘WE’ culture is able to draw from all of the resources of its members to achieve greater effectiveness. The silos that ‘ME’ organizations operate in are broken and there are opportunities for diffusion of ideas across personal, functional and professional boundaries within the organization. That organization gets a lot more out of its members.
Getting To A ‘WE’ Culture
Any organization’s culture is the sum of the mindsets of the individuals that are present in it, along with to how those people are affected by the organization’s goal. To change the organization, the starting point is the individual. To effect a comprehensive reorientation of the way it thinks, a company must adopt a structured approach that identifies and targets different strata with a level of effort proportionate to their influence.
It is important to be able to detect specific forces within the business that promote the culture of competition and identify the subtle ways these attitudes manifest. Additionally, a review of how people are recognized and rewarded is necessary to move it from promoting the individual to advancing the group. Top management need to create organizational cultural shifts and develop a leadership style that matches the new direction it is crafting for the organization.
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