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Individualism vs. Collectivism: No Man Left Behind

Whether in a business or educational environment, our culture is dazzled by the idea of collaboration as a means for creativity. Managers are so insistent on finding “the right fit” for the team that a whole group of people are forgotten: the individualists. With collaboration becoming the new way of thinking, those with introverted personalities are left on the outside looking in.

This presents a problem; research by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations suggests that “individualistic values may be beneficial, especially when creativity is a salient goal.” Today, such values tend to be frowned upon because they are seen as promoting destructive conflict through separation.

However, in years past, solitude was the ideal state for creative development. Take Albert Einstein: Although shy, he resolved to use this trait as a means for the greater good. His individual, untethered genius led to new ways of thinking about time, space, matter, energy and gravity.

Therefore, individualism is not the vehicle of destruction corporations make it out to be; in fact, the most amazingly creative people tend to be introverted. One reason resonates with pure common sense: Introverts don’t mind working alone. In the 2005 Cornell creativity study, results showed that “highly creative individuals were found to have traits such as independence of judgment, autonomy and self-confidence that allowed them to break with their social and occupational groups to propose novel ideas.”

In other words, solitude may be the leading factor in generating creative work.

People in groups tend to conform to majority rule, even if they don’t agree with the decision. Conformity can hinder a group’s ability to extend the limits of “groupthink,” thereby closing off minds from crafting unique and innovative solutions. Culturally, we are committed to team work to such an overwhelmingly degree that we neglect the importance of quiet time. It’s in the sound of silence that our random thoughts bubble into great ideas.

Consider computer guru Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple. While he needed Steve Jobs to help birth his invention to the world, the initial work was all behind the scenes, when he was alone. “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me: They live in their heads,” Wozniak said. “They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone.”

Today, companies are too concerned with collaboration that they overlook the value behind personal thinking time. Rather than choose one orientation over the other, companies should find a balance between the two, so both are accommodated. While collectivism promotes harmony and cooperation in the workplace, individualistic thinking also is a viable reality that encourages expression of one’s true thoughts.

In order to propel your business from good to great, the value that each employee possesses must be embraced. Leave no one behind and you will reap the rewards.