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4 Apr 2013

Groups as Enemies of Individuals

Group vs IndividualWe form groups every day, some formal, others informal. The idea that groups are often enemies of individuals comes from two facts:

  1. People tend to behave more negatively in groups than when alone.
  2. Everyone surrenders something to be a part of a group.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is an excellent example of how normal, well-adjusted humans – when encouraged to act uninhibitedly as a group – can inflict harm on others. Peer pressure for instance increases dishonesty and reduces creativity.

Since people are unique, no group can hope to be a source of all commonalities for any two people. Thus, when groups form around commonalities, those commonalities will represent a very small part of any one person’s personality. However, to ensure the group’s survivability, the group will raise the saliency of those commonalities and diminish individuals’ unique qualities so they won’t leave for other groups.

The United States Constitution is the best, popular example of the natural opposition between groups and individuals. Realizing the real, potential tyranny of majorities (groups), the Constitution’s framers created the Bill of Rights to protect individuals. In the workplace, we see this opposition most often when others accuse individuals of not being “team players.” Since “team” carries a very positive connotation, it’s often used to criticize the individual and enforce conformity.

In many cases though, this natural reaction is the result of uneasy emotions triggered subconsciously by someone who is different . . . especially if that difference is one of talent or some other prized attribute. The problems Lancelot created for the Round Table as the “first” among equals is an allegory for this phenomenon in the workplace. Thus, integrating Constitution’s spirit by finding ways our people can express themselves will ensure that our team becomes nothing more than a team of slaves.


2 Responses

  1. This is an interesting and astute post Mike. I agree and find only the most thoughtful and emotionally intelligent leadership styles achieve the balance of reinforcing commonalities and the team spirit whilst respecting and encouraging individual self expression. In the end, this balance seems to create healthy group dynamics.

    1. Mike Lehr

      You’re right about that, Gloria. The balance you mention creates healthy group dynamics but having the right leadership to do that is quite difficult to find and do. Groups, by their very nature, will tend to support conformers and shun non-conformers. It’s difficult for groups to exist if everyone is off doing their own thing with no coordination, organization and . . . rules. For example, rather than look at this problem from an individual’s perspective, look at it from the group’s especially as members become increasingly independent to do whatever they want to do regardless of what leaders, others and rules say. What then happens to the groups? How effective will they be in achieving their goals? Thus, someone who is highly individualistic is going to have a hard time finding a group unless she starts her own group and organizes it around her interests.

      I appreciate you stopping by, visiting and commenting, Gloria.

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