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How Can Leaders Channel the Creative Potential of Individualistic Groups?

By Jack Goncalo, Published on October 29, 2008

Over the last two decades, there has been a fundamental shift in the way work is organized as people are encouraged to spend less time working alone and more time working as a member of a team. To give you some idea of the magnitude of this shift, type “team player” as a search term in amazon.com and you will get hundreds of book titles that cover everything from Raising a Team Player (a guide for parents) to How to Become the Person that Every Team Wants. In this “team player” environment, leaders are told that the best way to manage their groups is by creating a collectivistic culture in which the needs of the team are emphasized over the needs of any one person. We have been told that such cultures promote harmony and cooperation and so collectivism should promote greater productivity and efficiency. Individualism on the other hand, promotes destructive conflict and opportunism and should be stamped out at every opportunity. It is no surprise then that a 2003 survey of American workers revealed that being a team player was ranked above job related knowledge, skill and ability for moving ahead at work. Since when is being team player more important than actually knowing how to do your job?

I think that this movement toward collectivism in the workplace is dangerously misguided and may come at the cost of creativity and innovation. Collectivism may make teams more efficient, but it may stamp out the creative spark that is necessary to encourage a broadminded exchange of ideas. Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have been building a case for individualism as the culture that is the best match for organizations that rely on a continuous stream of creative ideas to remain competitive in a changing environment. My work has yielded a few insights into why individualism is best for promoting creativity and how leaders can channel individualistic behavior in a constructive way.

What is the evidence that individualism stimulates creativity? In one study we randomly assigned some teams to develop a collectivistic culture and another set of teams to develop an individualistic culture using an experimental manipulation and then we asked each group to spend 15 minutes generating new business ideas. We found that the individualistic groups generated more ideas and that those ideas were rated as being more novel than those generated by the collectivistic groups. We also found that individualistic groups selected more creative ideas for implementation because they were better at combining each individual’s best idea to come up with something new. Can your organization afford to let creative ideas remain unexpressed? I think not. Take the example of the Post-it Note. It was based on a formula for what was widely considered to be a failed adhesive because it didn’t really stick to anything. After Art Fry recognized the potential usefulness of the adhesive, he proposed the Post-it Note product which eventually led to three new product lines and more than 100 million dollars in sales for the 3M corporation. But when I tell leaders that the best way to come up with ideas like this is to foster a culture of individualism in their organization they often balk. “How can I manage an individualistic group? Isn’t this kind of culture really an anarchy? Individualism really isn’t very practical.” These objections reflect some common misconceptions about what individualism actually is and how it works.

First of all, individualism is not an anarchy. It is a normative order that can be managed just like any kind of group norm. In fact, individualism is more effective at facilitating the expression of creative ideas when group leaders are (a) clear in their expectation that people in their group should be individualistic and (b) willing to reject people who are either unable or unwilling to meet these expectations. For example, in another experiment, we told some groups that they were expected to be individualistic as they worked on the next task and so they should just behave however they want to because no one is paying attention. We told another set of groups that they were also expected to be individualistic, and, to help them enforce the norm for individualism, they would identify the person who was least individualistic and that person would be asked to leave. We found that group generated more creative ideas when the norm for individualism was strong and that they felt pressure to conform to the group or risk being rejected; So much for anarchy.

Second, individualism does not simply mean that everyone is just trying to be different just for the sake of being different. Individualism can take two different forms, horizontal (emphasizing equality) and vertical (emphasizing hierarchy). In the horizontal form everyone is doing their own thing without a care for what anyone else is doing, but in the vertical form the emphasis is on winning, being better, moving up the ladder. Think the Lone Ranger versus Gordon Gecko. When it comes to creativity, which form do you think is better? I’ll give you a hint: “Greed is Good.” In a recent study we induced an individualistic mindset in groups and then told one set of groups to think of arguments to support the idea that everyone should be rewarded equally regardless of what they contribute (horizontal) and another set of groups to think of reasons why it makes sense to give some people a greater share of the reward if they contributed more (vertical). We found that it was the vertical form of individualism that stimulated the expression of creative ideas. In fact, the horizontal form of individualism that emphasizes equality led groups to perform as poorly as the groups who were collectivistic. In other words, ideas are most likely to emerge in a group that encourages people to stand out and be different, but the creative potential of such groups is most likely to be unleashed when each member of the group is compelled to out-compete each other in a race to propose the most novel ideas. So much for the Lone Ranger.

In sum, the message from my research is that that individualistic behavior can be managed and that leaders who manage it the right way may be in the best position to cultivate creative ideas in their teams.

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Note: this article was first published on the Bacharach Blog: "This blog has been established for the purpose of observing and examining leadership. It is dedicated to the belief that good leaders do not simply come up with good ideas, but they have the capacity to actively put those ideas into play and deliver. This blog is dedicated to teaching, learning, and observing leadership in action, at all levels of our society—in the classroom, in the community, in the workplace, and in government."

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