The film Wall Street, with its iconic character Gordon Gekko, coined the phrase greed is good. “Greed is right, greed works,” he claimed.
But this runs counter to almost every intuition we have.
We assume that employees who prize the collective good are going to be better for our workplace culture. This assumption makes sense. After all, much of modern administrative work takes place in teams. To work effectively together requires a focus on the group. Individualists, on the other hand, are viewed as selfish and purely out for themselves.
But, as with all assumptions, the reality is much more nuanced.
Greed is right, greed works
The character Gordon Gekko made the point that greed is a natural human drive. “It captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms. Greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
The film itself disproves Gekko’s thesis, of course. Gekko’s greed gets the best of him, leading to illegal activities that land him in jail.
In The C-Suite, Greed is Not All That Great
In the C-suite, it can be disastrous. In the 1990s executive share options gained popularity as a means of leveraging leadership’s innate greed. This was done in the service of maximizing shareholder value. It was (and still is) thought to be a powerful incentive to put the interests of shareholders first. However, share prices don’t always relate to their fundamental value. Self-serving Individualists in positions of power can boost share prices in the short term long enough to exercise their share options. This might maximize bonus/commissions but to the detriment of the long-term health of the business.
For the rest of us average employees too, fostering individualism can inadvertently cause us to see others as threats. This can lead to selfish behaviour. It could even encourage us to sabotage others or withhold information that is useless to us but vital to allowing others to succeed.
So greed might be good, Mr. Gekko. But for whom?
Individualists are highly motivated and, sometimes, that’s just what your culture needs.
Greed isn’t all bad.
Want to put together a high-performing salesforce? Look for individualists who are highly competitive and driven to succeed. Then support them with a bonus or commission structure.
Want a leader for your innovation division? Hire a maverick who is willing to break the system in order to make it work better. Then support them by relaxing the existing hierarchical structure.
Some workplaces are already structured to support individualists. Investment advisors, for example, are individuals working together under one roof. Even in firms with several hundred employees in cities across the world, each focuses on securing and servicing their own clients.
It’s All About Culture With A Small C
Individualism can also be heavily influenced by the ethnocultural make-up of your workforce. The Dutch social psychologist, Gerard Hofstede, is known for his pioneering research on cross-cultural influences on organizations. He explores five dimensions of national cultures including Individualism vs. Collectivism.
According to Hofstede, some countries are relatively more individualistic. Think United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Scandinavian countries. For examples of the more collectivistic cultures think of China, Latin America, Indonesia, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Knowing in advance how individuals from different ethnocultural backgrounds expect groups to function can avoid potential conflicts.
But dividing individuals into black and white categories is ultimately too reductive. No matter their cultural background, very few workers in a corporate environment are only individualists or only collectivists. Even the most individualist amongst us care about our co-workers, have colleagues we look out for, and set aside our selfish genes so we can function effectively within a team.
Very few workers in a corporate environment are only individualists or only collectivists.
Everyone is an individual AND part of a group
Most people we would call collectivists are motivated, to some degree, by enlightened self-interest. We all relish those moments when we are applauded for our contributions. Most tasks require a combination of individual and collective motivation. So if you have a healthy cultural mix of people you are more likely to get a better outcome.
Google cited this very fact in their report on Project Aristotle, their attempt to break down the elements that make an effective team. One of the main factors was providing a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the overall goal of the company.
But here’s the issue. Project Aristotle’s study revealed that what qualifies as a sense of purpose varies from one individual to another. For one it might be financial security. For another, it might mean helping the team succeed. For still others, it might mean self-expression.
That makes the challenge you face as a leader who is fostering a high-performance team even greater. Because your team is composed of individuals, you have to tailor your leadership style to suit each one of them.
Note the significant mindset shift that is implied in that sentence. It flies in the face of most management practices. You have to change your style to suit them. Not the other way around.