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  • Writer's pictureBreinn Richter, MBA

The Performance of Professionalism - Part Three - Individualism

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

For this installment of the “Performance of Professionalism” series, we're going to talk about individualism.

Okun (2021) states that our cultural attachment to individualism leads us to "a toxic denial of our essential interdependence" and the reality that we are all in this together (p. 20). The characteristics of individualism relies on the assumption that we make it on our own, without help, while pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Good people are strong, self-reliant, assertive, and independent, whereas those who don't meet some prescribed value of individual success are assumed to be too dependent, too lazy or too stupid to be able to do things on their own.

In the context of culture (organizational culture included), simply put, individualism boils down to "I versus we". Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, set out to help his employer at the time (IBM) to determine national values differences across the multinational company's worldwide subsidiaries. From his survey, he devised the cultural dimensions theory that he posed would aid in cross-cultural communication between organizations (Hofstede, 1991).

One of these cultural dimensions is individualism vs. collectivism, or the degree to which people work alone or in relationship with others. Individualistic cultures are those that stress the needs of the individual over the needs of the group as a whole, and social behavior tends to be dictated by the attitudes and preferences of individuals (Cherry, 2020). Spoiler alert: high individualist cultures are found in North America and Western Europe (click here for Hofstede's world map). In contrast, collectivist cultures stress the importance of the group and social cooperation.

Both orientations have their advantages and disadvantages, but for the purposes of this blog and in the context of White supremacy culture, we are going to focus on individualism here in the United States. Individualistic cultures have a "bootstrap" orientation, where people should be able to solve problems or accomplish goals on their own without having to rely on assistance from others. This tendency to focus on personal identity and autonomy is pervasive, in that it can have a profound influence on how a society functions. For example, think about how we have approached the pandemic here in the US - in an individualist culture, we are more likely to value our own individual well-being over the good of the group (mask debate anyone?).

As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, organizations are just microcosms of society at large - and issues around individualism are likely to manifest in very personal ways depending on who and where you work. For example, individualism at work shows up as:

  • for white people: seeing yourselves and/or demanding to be seen as an individual and not as part of the white group;failure to acknowledge any of the ways dominant identities - gender, class, sexuality, religion, able-bodiedness, age, education to name a few - are informed by belonging to a dominant group that shapes cultural norms and behavior;

  • for BIPOC people: individualism forces the classic double bind when BIPOC people are accused of not being "team players" - in other words, punishment or repercussions for acting as an individual if and when doing so "threatens" the team;

  • for white people: a culturally supported focus on determining whether an individual is racist or not while ignoring cultural, institutional, and systemic racism; the strongly felt need by many if not most white people to claim they are "not racist" while their conditioning into racism is relentless and unavoidable;

  • for white people: a belief that you are responsible for and are qualified to solve problems on your own;

  • for BIPOC people: being blamed and shamed for acting to solve problems without checking in and asking for permission from white people;

  • little experience or comfort working as part of a team, which includes both failure to acknowledge the genius or creativity of others on the team and a willingness to sacrifice democratic and collaborative process in favor of efficiency; see double bind for BIPOC people above;

  • desire for individual recognition and credit; failure to acknowledge how what we know is informed by so many others;

  • isolation and loneliness;

  • valuing competition more highly than cooperation; where collaboration is valued, little time or resources are devoted to developing skills in how to collaborate and cooperate;

  • accountability, if any, goes up and down, not sideways to peers or to those the organization is set up to serve;

  • a lack of accountability, as the organization values those who can get things done on their own without needing supervision or guidance, unless and until doing things on "our" own threatens power.

Individualism, in my mind, is directly linked to the myth of meritocracy. As a society, we continue to perpetuate this idea that with enough hard work and determination that wealth, power, and privilege can be yours. And this idea hinges on the belief that failure to reach "success" for marginalized folks is a direct result of their personal failure, a refusal to work hard, and/or some inherent inferiority (COCO, 2019). However, this belief does not account for the well-documented structural inequities present in the US today.

So what are we supposed to do about it? Start with:

  • seeking to understand all the ways we are informed by our dominant identities and how our membership in dominant identity groups informs us both overtly and covertly (while realizing too that these identities do not have to define us); understanding how membership in a dominant group (the white group, the male group, the hetero group, the wealthy group) extends psychic, spiritual, and emotional benefits as well as material benefits;

  • seeking to understand how these benefits are, in reality, toxic, because our complicity with being positioned as both "better" and "normal" requires that we dehumanize all those designated as "less than" and "abnormal;"

  • acknowledging that all white people have internalized racist conditioning and that an antiracist commitment is not about being "good" or "bad," it's about figuring out what we are going to do about our conditioning;

  • doing our personal work while also bringing focus to cultural, institutional, and systemic manifestations of white supremacy and racism;

  • naming teamwork and collaboration as an important personal and group value; acknowledging that teamwork and collaboration take more time, particularly at the front end and yield a better result with higher buy-in and higher ability to take shared risks;

  • making sure the group or organization is working towards shared goals that have been collaboratively developed and named;

  • rewarding people for collaborating;

  • evaluating the ability to work in a team as well as the ability to get things done;

  • honoring process as much as product (honoring how you do things as much as what you do or produce);

  • making sure that credit is given to all who participate in an effort, not just the leaders or most public person; make sure that when you are given credit, you distribute it to all those who helped you with whatever was accomplished;

  • creating collective accountability (rather than individual accountability);

  • creating a culture where people feel they can bring problems to the group; use meetings as a place to solve problems, not just a place to report activities;

  • holding ourselves accountable to the principle of collective thinking and action;

  • developing the ability to collaborate and delegate to others;

  • in workspaces or movement efforts, evaluating performance based on an ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals;

  • holding ourselves and each other accountable to a shared definition of leadership that assumes a collaborative and collective approach;

  • holding ourselves and leaders accountable for mistakes without assuming that we need to be perfect to lead; develop collaborative and collective strategies for how to respond to mistakes that encourage learning from the mistakes, appropriate boundary setting, and restorative approaches;

  • realizing that leadership is dynamic and does not rest in one individual; we are called upon to lead at different times in different circumstances and called upon to follow or take a back seat when we are learning or making room for new leadership to emerge.

If you're looking at this list and feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone. You never have to tackle everything at once - pick a few areas that are meaningful to you and your organization and create action items to address them. Organizational culture has a powerful effect on individual and group behavior; interrogating the result of working within a highly individualistic organization is challenging for most. You've been operating within these processes, patterns and norms for a very long time. If you need help identifying, prioritizing or creating change, feel free to reach out to us and we can help develop a strategic plan to de-emphasize individualism and move toward more collectivist practices inside your organization.

Unless otherwise cited, all content for this series has been adapted or cited directly from the work of Tema Okun and her colleagues at Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks).

We have made every effort to direct links (to books for purchase) to a site that is BIPOC owned and independently operated. Collective Leadership Strategies does not accept compensation for links on this website.


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