Enabling both individual and collective needs in the workplace
One of the biggest questions organisations and societies face is how to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the collective. We aspire to enabling diversity and individualism while being unified around a collective goal, but this means we somehow have to prevent individuals from doing whatever they want if it harms the collective, while not stopping them from being their authentic selves. That is not an easy balance to achieve.
A very topical example of the fight between collectivism and individualism is the debate about whether to wear a mask during the pandemic. Some feel that enforced mask wearing is an infringement on personal liberties. Some are adhering to evidence that wearing masks in a pandemic has a benefit to the collective, with only a tiny level of discomfort to the individual. Not everyone agrees, but the majority appear to be aligning to the latter, partially because masks are largely mandated and partially because we are rediscovering how essential it is to work as a collective to survive. This is a key COVID-induced mindset shift, but more on that later.
Balancing these competing forces can be just as challenging in the workplace. My ongoing EX research has shown there are anecdotally two dominant but thoroughly different approaches to balancing individualism and collectivism in the workplace.
Approach 1: collusion and competition
Collusion requires that you learn the behaviours favoured by leadership and behave accordingly, regardless of your own personal preferences, to demonstrate your commitment to the organisational strategy, which is positioned as the collective purpose. If you naturally exhibit those behaviours, you are in luck. If you don’t, you have to learn and emulate behaviours that don’t come naturally to you. In collusive environments, people are typically encouraged to compete for a small number of spots to be part of the status quo and their individualism is judged by how aligned they are to that status quo in comparison to their competitors, competition being the key way individuals are encouraged to differentiate themselves.
Workplaces that use a collusion/competive approach tend to demonstrate the following behaviours:
- Encouraging people to learn how to present themselves and communicate in a way that their leaders find appealing
- Having non-transparent pay systems and discouraging people from discussing their salaries with one another
- Assuming qualifications from elite universities are superior, pursuing graduates who understand the language of prosperity and the C-Suite/status quo
- Having complex hierarchical structures and encouraging competition between departments and individuals
- Looking favourably upon leaders who mentor individuals to navigate the current status quo but not providing time for leaders to actively train their teams in hard skills
- Discouraging open discussions about discrimination and considering any discrimination issues as a singular conflict resolution incident for HR to address privately
- Seeing diversity as having people representing marginalised demographics in leadership teams, but only those that are philosophically and behaviourally aligned with the status quo
- Encouraging networking with influencers as a key method for progression
- Rewarding the claiming of credit for the work as much (if not more) than doing the work itself
- Putting the onus on individuals to argue for why they are entitled to a specific amount of money or a promotion, often in comparison to their colleagues
- Delivering varied consequences for discriminatory behaviour based on the commercial value of the individual to the business
- Having inflexible working arrangements that specify the same hours and locations for all
- Designing social events around one demographic and/or elite leisure activities
All of these techniques are designed to reward agreement with the status quo and discourage dissent. This is why you could call this approach ‘collusion’, because it is conspiratorial in nature and not within the spirit of the law of inclusion. It also protects people of privilege over those who are marginalised.
So, let’s address privilege, because it is a very important linchpin in contemporary organisational and societal transformation. In essence, being a person of privilege means that the society in which you live grants you easier access to progression, security and prosperity because the behaviours you have been trained to emulate and sometimes even your physical characteristics also belong to the demographics with the most power. Many privileged people (of which I count my caucasian, hererosexual, cisgender, middle class self) will often instinctively rally against the idea that they have superior access to opportunities because humans have a tendency to do two things; primarily focus on their own struggles and aspire to having more than they currently do. This means that many people think that their individual circumstances — their own personal challenges and a lack of desired prosperity — cancel out their privilege because they don’t have exactly what they want right now and believe they have fairly earned what they do have. However, what is important to understand is that even if you have struggled, if you are part of a dominant demographic you have still had access to opportunities, mindsets and experiences you would have not otherwise have had if you were not part of the dominant demographic.
The difficulting in acknowledging privilege is that it is insidious by nature, meaning it is about being able to take things for granted, so it is very difficult for privileged people to understand the absence of discrimination or how millions of microaggressions (everyday language, cultural references and lauded behaviours) communicate to the non-privileged that this society is not really here for them. For us to pursue workplace inclusion in any real form, people who support and benefit from privilege — myself included — must acknowledge, understand and work to dismantle it. It is confronting and can work against our secret desire to retain power, but it must be done. Workplace collusion is one way in which we actively strengthen privilege.
So, collusion requires that we must continue to take for granted that some are naturally designed for power and others must adapt. This is why a collusion/competitive approach can never truly embrace demographic and conceptual diversity. Sadly, workplaces that encourage collusion and competition can also be highly successful financially as they have access to all the current systems of merit and prosperity right now, but they are woefully underprepared for the more inclusive future which is highly desirable to the vast majority of people, and who knows what this groundswell will achieve in 2021.
So what is the alternative?
Approach 2: cohesion and diversity
A more inclusive workplace approach is about allowing truly diverse individuals to find common ground in a collective goal, while achieving that goal in different ways. Better said than done, I hear you say. Well, cohesion and diversity is possible, but only if people are not required to substantially change their identity to access reward and progression, if rules and rewards are highly transparent and if the organisational structure is flatter and less siloed. The principle of a cohesion/diversity environment is that everyone has a range of talents and perspectives that can benefit the collective equally. Very often, people work in a collective of smaller packs. The only things that matter are how good you are at the craft of your job, how much you actively enable others in your pack and how much you are prepared to learn to do a better job, and everyone is enabled to excel at all of these things.
Workplaces that enable cohesion and diversity tend to do the following:
- Encourage people to find common ground with others but accept differences
- Explicitly explain how organisational values are demonstrated in the operations of the business and consistently enact those values
- Have transparent pay systems and are fine with people discussing their salaries with one another
- Monitor and acknowledge the efforts of all individuals without assigning merit to overseers of effort
- Do not assume qualifications from elite educational institutions are superior, and have smart systems in place to transfer hard skills to people day-to-day, as well as providing easy access to courses and certifications for everyone
- Identify individuals based on their range of skills and not the departments they sit in
- Have very flat structures with very few titles and encourage collaboration between departments — or don’t have departments at all
- Encourage open discussions about diversity and inclusion and have dedicated D&I professsionals from diverse backgrounds who are encouraged to monitor and implement provable systems of inclusion across the entire organisation, accountable to evidence, the collective and human rights laws
- Understand neurodivergence and have systems in place to support neurodiverse needs
- Have flexible hours, locations and tools to accommodate different lifestyles
- Base progression on a very transparent performance evaluation that does not rely on a particular communication style or popularity with peers and superiors
- Understand the difference between abusive conflict and conflicting opinions and train people in conflict resolution and tolerance
- Design social events around all demographics
- Ensure employees know how they play a specific role in achieving the company purpose, reward them for their individual impact on that purpose
- Consequences for discriminatory behaviour are consistent and are unrelated to the commercial value of the individual
- Enable small packs of diverse people to collaborate in a way that suits them
The combination of cohesion and diversity encourages people to support the organisational ecosystem because they are rewarded for having a positive impact on the collective by using their own talents and perspectives. Many progressive organisations are adopting a range of these approaches, attracting a generation of talent that don’t really want to choose between colluding or low prosperity. None are perfect, so I’m loathe to share those examples here, but many are moving strongly in the right direction.
If COVID has taught us one thing it is that our collective survival will not come from colluding with old systems of power and competing to the detriment of our fellow humans. Our survival depends on cohesion and accessing diverse solutions from diverse brains to change the way we live and work for the better, which means for everyone. The same goes for workplaces that will thrive in future. Moving away from a culture of collusion and competition and towards cohesion and diversity will ultimately benefit the collective while enabling individuals to feel a valued part of something they can truly impact and believe in. This moment is enabling radical change, so let’s go with it.