Focus on the group, the community, the village, and on activities such as compromise, collaboration, cooperation—as well as on other groupiness goals and teaminess theories—can foster fruitless, dysfunctional, even harmful, results. If a group effort is to be capable or a team to be effective, each person participating needs to have a well-developed self. Unfortunately, all people are not well-developed selves.
Has our culture gotten out of balance towards the group and away from autonomy? Both are needed for healthy action, and vigorous living, but group and team seem to be more highly valued and spotlighted today.
It was with concern about both this need for self-development and the lack of balance that I attended Professor Ray Baumeister's talk at the Association for Psychological Science annual conference this May; his presentation was titled "What Is the Self?" It clarified for me why I find emphasis on the group without equal attention to the individual so troubling. A brief overview of much of his talk . . .
He asked: How does the self emerge? He referred to "More Is Different" by P.W. Anderson and explained that "self" is the opposite of reductionism. At the higher and more complex levels of structure is where the self emerges, not at the levels of basic parts and ingredients. Because the self is complex, the reductionist point of view will not see it and likely will deny the possibility of its existence. Anderson says
At each stage, entirely new laws, concepts, and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry.Baumeister talked about the need for each member of a group to be fully developed and to have a differentiated self. If that kind of self does not make up the group, group pathology will likely result, including
- Diffusion of responsibility
- Brainstorming that is less productive than work done individually by group members
- Social loafing (group members putting forth less effort)
- Poor decision-making
- Resources wasted
- Individuals submerged to the group (when individuals blend and are submerged, the group is less than its total number)
These days I am seeing that unfortunately many advocates of groups and teams do not typically look at what kind of selves are needed to make up functional and productive efforts of collaboration. The team approach is revered but with little thought to the necessary quality of team members. It is almost as if the team cheerleaders think all people are
We therefore see lots of groups and lots of group pathology.
People who can be functional and productive members of a group are what Otto Laske calls "self-authoring." To develop to that level, he believes they must accomplish three tasks* which he lists in Measuring Hidden Dimensions: The Art and Science of Fully Engaging Adults:
- internally distance themselves from their need of being acknowledged and accepted by the community; they must be able to "go it alone" if their own inner voice tells them to do so
- develop a better and better notion of their uniqueness, of what makes them different from others, and find the courage to make that difference known to others by respecting others' otherness
- develop an ethical theory of integrity of self that is based on their own authentic values and principles.
The problem is that many people do not master those developmental tasks. And even those who do may at least sometimes need and want to work autonomously rather than in groups. Therefore, this emphasis on group and team and community and village—an emphasis that is often unbalanced when it does not recognize the benefits of authonomy—can be misguided, unfruitful, or even destructive.From where did this call for group and team come? I am not sure how it came into prominence. Are you?
I think we need to seriously examine its premises, assumptions, and usefulness—and its possible unintended, harmful consequences for many individuals and for the organizations in which they work or live. Thanks to Roy Baumeister and Otto Laske for helping me to see why I am troubled.
*Another recent example of the emphasis on we-ness: A person who has achieved this level of development, who is self-authoring, seems not to be the focus of the new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, a book I have been reading (and for the most part enjoying) while thinking about the ideas in this blog post. E.g., I read:
The self system serves as a Trojan horse, sneaking in the values and beliefs of those around us under the cover of night without our ever being the wiser. So when we use our capacity for self-control to pursue our goals and values, they are quite often goals and values that will benefit society as much as or more than they will benefit us personally. And when we are made aware of ourselves as social entities that can be judged by others, our self-control often kicks in to ensure that we act in accordance with the values of those around us. A self system that operates this way improves our odds of being liked, loved, and respected by members of the groups we are in because we will work hard in pursuit of the groups' goals and values.
Where is the balance of autonomy in that system?