The Problem with Championing Individuality
When we think about success and growth within a community or organization, two groups stand out to me most: Individualism, which is defined as the “moral stance, political philosophy, ideology or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual” and conformism, or collectivism, which is “an ideology that emphasizes the interdependence of every human”.
Working in digital, we hear buzzwords like “innovator”, “visionary”, “revolutionary” and “thought leader”, and we think those words represent the best qualities in people who have made or will make a difference in this world. We tend to consider those who are considered original, extreme, no-nonsense and bold as the leaders who stand out most to us in our fields, right?
Well as a result, we think anything else is subpar and weak. If someone doesn’t have the guts to tell it like it is or the creativity and confidence to bring big, huge, radical ideas to an organization, then they probably aren’t cut out to lead, start a business or change the world.
We live in a culture today where individualism, distinct opinions and independence are traits that are admired and rewarded and have been since we were children. As kids, our parents demanded that we be ourselves, even at the risk of exclusion. Teachers lectured us to pursue our dreams, saying we could do anything and be anything we wanted to be. If we just put aside what others thought and put our mind to it, the possibilities were endless in our careers and lives. Today, individualism is not only respected, but it’s also a symbol of strength. This forces us to believe that those who agree too much—or seek harmony or don’t express opinions often or don’t welcome conflict—are weak. They are followers and can’t make an impact without a revolutionary leader.
Honestly, I’m over it.
I’m pretty fed up with this frame of mind. History has proved that peer pressure, groupthink and cohesive communities (collectivism) are the foundation of strong societies. They beget positive and productive behavior. We’re all afraid to care about what others think. Those who don’t care get the love, and those who do are considered too feeble to manage their emotions, much less a group.
It’s common thinking that self-reliance or personal freedom is the ultimate good, but the same can be said for complete devotion to one’s family, friends, community or society. Who are we to define the traits that make a person strong or weak?
In fact, science has proved that interdependent behavior, a.k.a. peer pressure, is healthier for you and the group you want to fit in with.
Studies have shown that harmful or malicious behavior is a symptom of asocial personalities, and for many, it means they just don’t give a crap. There’s a cost to only having your own interests in mind.
Those who are concerned about what others think are often more motivated to please their peers and be accepted and included in a group. Cohesiveness and harmony drive them to work together effectively toward a common goal. Those qualities make departments more productive, improve communications between teams and provide enjoyable working environments for every individual. Ultimately their peers care, and it pays.
Too often do the people without this emotional impulse to care what others think become terrible and destructive leaders: the Hitlers, the Sadam Husseins, the Joe Paternos, the Michael Vicks.
The people who supported them, or who just did nothing and silently watched them wreak destruction, weren't bad people—probably. In fact, they probably had average – above average levels of empathy and healthy social behaviors. They may have even been good moral citizens.
The reason they fell into line was because they cared, or they wouldn't have been so susceptible as to follow a passionate and forceful leader. They fell into evil's influence. Not only did an antisocial person with terrible motives influence their paths on a personal and persuasive level, but they also turned their human nature, vulnerability, desire to be part of a group and caring natures against them.
Some of the most moral and good people (and statistically the wisest) tend to question themselves the most, which is how they fall prey to the people who aren’t. The selfish people who want to win—the people with self-serving goals, who can't emotionally connect with those around them and who don't have the ability to step outside of themselves and their own needs, goals and desires—they’re the ones who crave leadership roles and too often get the mic when they shouldn't.
That's not to say that all leaders are Hitlers, or that most antisocials are leaders either.
Caring about what others think and having collective opinions isn't what we've come to consider it as today. What if everything we've been taught to think or value in human nature is wrong? What if we’ve been sending the wrong message to our youth and praising the wrong tactics to spark change in this world and do good?
Conforming doesn't mean you are weak or lack creativity, courage or ability. It has nothing to do with whether someone is brave enough to stand up against animal cruelty or human genocide or child obesity or to show they won't pursue a unique passion they love. It doesn't show that they lack a capacity for leadership, influence or an ability to make a difference in the world. It doesn't mean they aren't bold enough or aren’t in touch with who they are. And it doesn't represent a fear of being different or making a ripple in order to achieve greatness.
It just means they care.
This feeling should be the core of human relationships. It's a person’s propensity for giving, caring, helping, respecting, considering, understanding, sympathizing and putting another's needs, wants and desires before theirs to achieve a greater purpose. It's having the wisdom and self-discipline to do what will benefit your peers before yourself. It's the ability to feel another's feelings and care for those feelings that creates strong emotional intelligence and depth in relationships, and it will enable us to resolve our world’s issues. It allows one to know right versus wrong. Caring about family members’, friends’, coworkers’ and peers’ opinions means you act with healthy and honest intentions, and with that mindset, you will always do more good than harm. You'll always make an impact.
We should stop teaching the merits of and praising individualism over collectivism, being different for different's sake and taking a stance by simply not conforming to a societal "norm".
Why do we have to be one or the other: a conformist or an activist, a strong leader or a meek follower? If the goal is to better the world, to make a difference for those who can't or to give back to others who need our help, why would taking a stand, being unique, criticizing group thinking or caring about what others think be something we aim for, admire and appreciate?
Isn't it irrelevant if, at the end of the day, connecting with our teammates and wanting our peers’ support and encouragement helps us be better as a team? Why is that something we discourage, especially in Western civilization and modern corporate culture where we have the luxury to be exclusive? Why can't we promote inclusiveness, collective thinking and social connectivity? Why can’t we value consideration, compassion and helpfulness as equally virtuous as innovative ideas and courage? There's no need for or value in criticizing another for needing to have his or her idea liked—or better yet, wanting to be liked by a group of people they admire.
Next time you find yourself scoffing at the new intern because he's nervous in an internal meeting or too excited about a compliment his manager gave on the client presentation he's been slaving over, stop it. Be happy he cares and be excited that he wants to grow not only himself, but also the team.