« Old Europe - New Worlds | Main | Greetings »


I think that the American cult of individualism also has a strong effect on the "star mentality" found at companies like McKinsey and Enron.

Wow - I never knew that, as a social individualist, I am a cult member! Neat!

But seriously...It is a lack of emphasis on the individual that leaves so many companies in ruins or just middling in mediocrity. The Big Blog Company's associates, PeopleFanClub, are experts in driving higher business performance through an organisation's people, and we have had many long discussions about this very issue.

One thing we always marvel at together is that, in trying to improve teams and teamwork, many companies ignore completely the individual. Anyone who has ever been on a "team away day" or retreat will likely be familiar with all of the probing into how one sees the company's values, or the team developing, or the company moving forward...with no consideration given to the individual's values or goals or aspirations.

This reminds me of the tired line, often fed to us at sports practice when I was growing up in America, that "There is no 'I' in 'team." Total disregard for the individual for the sake of the group is taught to children as axiomatic. That is truly disturbing, and is no more appropriate for a company of adults than a school full of children.

So far from blaming "the American cult of individualism" for companies that go bankrupt, I'd look first to the American cult of collectivism. After all, all of those inordinate rewards that companies like Enron throw at their talent are not actually given out of genuine interest for the individual, but in the pursuit of a reputation as a top company, a resource-rich company, and a big player. The idea is that "We are all better off if we can achieve this reputation and image"; the reward of individuals along the way is, if not incidental, certainly not down to real concern for individuals.

It really is a strange paradox, isn't it Jackie? American popular culture celebrates the individual, the star, yet, at the same time, has a dedication to the team, strongly reflected in corporate culture, as you mentioned above. This same tension can be found in the basic policial structure of the US: federalism. E Pluribus Unum...Out of many, one.

I certainly wouldn't make a claim that American individualism is to blame for bankruptcy...I simply suggested it was a theme worth looking at, as it is such a mainstay of our culture. By looking at, we can then raise new issues, such as you just did.

That being said, I think Gladwell also has a point that we need to focus on systems as well as on people. Sure, people design the systems, but those systems (techniques) tend to disappear into a black box of "that is the way it is done" and are not then considered. For example, we can look at the corporate system of competition with its war metaphor, and compare it to a new cooperative-style competition, as the folks at Institute for the Future are doing with their "New Literacy for Cooperation" initiative.

Well, everything starts from the individual. No invention and discovery came out of a meeting room. That is why the founding block of every company is its employees, i.e. the individuals working there. As Cluetrain puts it - a company is a legal fiction.

Of course, systems have an enormous impact on how individuals within them interact and that is how you can get stupid companies full of clever people. The scale from system to individual is wide-ranging and where the emphasis should be along the scale depends on the purpose and the nature of the enterprise. For example, the army obviously emphasises the system, which is the ultimate. This is because its purpose is the ability to take any stupid (or clever) individual and train him to do perform a certain function that fits within the system. The system rules.

However, when we are talking about knowledge, information and innovation, the opposite end of the scale is relevant. It is the individual that makes a difference. You cannot order or train or manage anybody into inventing or creating something. That is, by the way, one of the (many) reasons socialist economies of yesteryear have fared so badly compared to the western capitalist ones. (And I know what I speak of, I had the dubious pleasure of a first-hand experience of a command economy.)

Having worked in the financial services and in the City of London, in my view, the fall of Enron and others has less to do with the American 'cult of individualism' (which I could not detect when I worked in the US) and far more to do with GAAP and the warped incentives that any regulation creates. And a good old-fashioned greed into the bargain and bob's your uncle. No need to go philosophical over individualism and other isms. :-)

The comments to this entry are closed.


CEObloggers Wiki