ME vs. WE: the collective as a discontinued model?
Increasingly individualized worlds of experience strengthen employees’ personal expectations and demands toward companies. But these rely on a collective perspective to master transformations in particular. But how do leaders strengthen this perspective?
Opposing individualization is probably not advisable. Because pressure usually creates counterpressure. And leads to a downward spiral. People change their behavior for two reasons: Either because they have to or because they want to. I therefore advise leaders to take a closer look at two phenomena of individualization and use them for the collective perspective.
Both are connected with the trend towards continuous self-optimization. It moves an enormous number of people and influences their behavior - quite independently of the dimension. Whether it’s about eating healthier, exercising efficiently, performing more calmly, or being able to relax more deeply: What all these ambitions have in common is that they are not nourished by success alone, but need continuous, confirming and, above all, rapid feedback to do so. This need is fulfilled not only by digital helpers, but above all by specific communities whose members constantly comment on and evaluate each other. Friends and acquaintances, for example, confirm to me that after they have posted something on Instagram, they check several times a minute to see who has reacted to it and how - an unqualified “thumbs up” as an indicator of one’s own development?
This brings us back to the two phenomena that leaders can also use to shape a collective perspective:
- employees may have the courage to share personal content in an anonymous community. However, they fear that they will not get anywhere with it. They are looking for confirmation.
- employees cultivate an emotional connection with (new, digital) reference groups via values, attitudes or motives. They are looking for belonging.
There may be various reasons why companies have a hard time competing with the fluid, fast-paced, and attractive digital reference groups. But companies don’t need to find followers: They have all already signed a contract. Unfortunately, only a few take advantage of this.
You are good - or the search for (immediate) confirmation.
Regular feedback is probably the most effective management tool par excellence - and the most undervalued at the same time. Yet, year after year, thousands of leaders in a wide variety of courses, seminars and workshops take it upon themselves to give more and better feedback - without really changing much.
This is partly due to the practice system (which I will not go into here) and partly because the feedback topic in courses tends to be discussed from the perspective of the “giver” rather than the “receiver”. So it is more about how leaders integrate more feedback into their routines rather than what value feedback has for the relationship and building relevance and is therefore worthwhile for all involved (so leaders don’t need to give more feedback, but want to give it).
When it comes to leveraging individualization for the organization, leaders should understand that employees are constantly seeking feedback. They turn to those sources that are bubbling with it: Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, etc. Fortunately, their feedback is binary (thumbs up or thumbs down) and does not provide targeted support, although this is precisely what increases the value of feedback.
So when leaders give feedback, it’s always in terms of a goal or motive that the company and employees share - for example, just getting better (guided, mentored, continuously). This feedback far surpasses the binary feedback of social media in terms of quality and is much more interesting because it is denser and more dynamic. This also allows leaders to establish feedback as a cultural building block rather than a copy-paste, one-way message.
My tip: Determine together with your employees how and for what purpose mutual feedback is to be used. This makes it easier for you to clarify bring and fetch obligations as well as mutual expectations. Outline boundaries (e.g., your own time availability) and agree on mutual responsibilities. Just because many are thirsty for feedback doesn’t mean that you, as the leader, can’t - and shouldn’t - actively shape that search.
Be different - or the search for an attractive swarm.
Self-optimization requires not only continuous feedback, but also a high relevance of the community that provides feedback. In the digital space, such relevance is readily available and algorithms promote easy integration with “think-alikes.”
Meanwhile, a community is only relevant if it responds affirmatively to individual contributions. This intensifies interaction among members and in turn strengthens the relevance of the community. This success-critical co-dependency between giving and receiving feedback means that positive communication is always the order of the day.
Such feel-good oases strengthen emotional affiliation on the one hand, and on the other, the belief that one can develop for the better and thus distinguish oneself from others (who are usually not members of the same community). This creates a virtual home in which the members are integrated in a swarm-like manner: All are allowed to move freely, yet all react similarly.
The less companies care about social cohesion and cultural integration of employees (i.e., serving this co-dependency), the more important groups that (more) perform this task become. And the more difficult it becomes to give negative feedback, to criticize and to agree on and demand alternative ways to reach the goal.
Especially in companies, it is not just about individual optimization, but about business development, innovation and dealing with complexity. For this, companies need a collective perspective, i.e. employees who accept the limits of individualized self-optimization and are able to set aside their own interests in favor of the collective.
My tip: discuss with employees what is relevant, when and why. Then ask yourself how you can create and maintain this relevance (also on behalf of the company). So that affiliation is created. So that the company is perceived as a relevant partner for its own further development (and the influence of external, digital groups tends to decrease).