‘Me’ against ‘We’

I see a lot of talking about the trade of “ME” for “WE”. Would that always be a good thing?

When something becomes an internet meme, I usually assume that it is just another  superficial view of the world. Recently, I’ve been seeing a growing tendency for the collectivization of talent and performance evaluation just when companies say they want to retain the best workers.

This is not a simple situation and just following memes will never help. Example here.

Collectivism x Individualism

Collectivism is much more a concept than an ideology. I’d rather comment that it’s a paradigm. A paradigm by which human actions are evaluated for their dependence on each other. Evaluate communities, groups, and related sets. Evaluate group needs, desires and problems. We can cite Karl Marx and Emma Goldman as authors for those that  wish to dive into some more philosophical parts of this subject.

Individualism, in my definition as a paradigm, tells the observation of the smallest unit of collective, that being the singular assessment of the needs, desires and problems of individual and, finally. Regarding society, the sum of all individual needs are what the group needs. Likewise, we can cite Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek as known authors for this subject.

Individualism, therefore, values ​​the individual. Collectivism, the group. Therefore:

  • Collectively: the staff.
  • Individually: the talent.

The problem is precisely because these two opposing forces are equally valued within companies: the valor of both individual and team contributions. Which of these should be given more focus, since it is impossible to focus on opposite things in the same way that it is impossible to rise and fall at the same time?

The right answer is: both. How? Changing several other paradigms so that these two instances are not opposites. Therefore, this change begins by accepting as valid any individual talent contribution and looking at his/her achievements as something good, not finding it selfish, as what we have been seeing these days…

The Loss of Individual Talent

As memes usually massify superficial opinions and everyone ‘thinks good about teamwork (or collectivism in the workplace), I suggest a different reasoning and think a little deeper than these memes. Let’s think about individual talent.

I like to use the sports as example. There is always a team behind every athlete, but if this is not because of individual talent, no team would be the best team in the world. That same thinking serves Formula 1 . I guarantee that there are brilliant mechanics and engineers in every racing team. But the best driver usually wins. Why? Individual talent contribution.

It is from individual talent – not from teamwork – that these brilliant contribution happens. Overcoming what is  impossible. The big dribble. The great art work. A spectacular profitable sale. The biggest bug solution. The new product idea. The great talent acquisition.

When the individual is discouraged from giving his/her special contribution, when restriction are placed to prevent people to show their individuality, we have the worst side of collectivism, which is the leveling down. Kind of Mediocracy. If the genius guy gets rewarded just like someone on the average, or worse, forced to take a Brazilian soccer player’s speech (the first-person singular noun, like talking about himself as “we”), we’ll be killing the talent or creating egocentrics hidden on the bushes.

Strategic HR policies do not address this problem.

By abolishing individual contribution and valuation or by selecting only those that are diluted in the collective, a company that wants to remain innovative or will wither be with a team full of false modest people or will soon fall into the arid place of no innovation and competition following.

To solve the individual valuation problem, some companies give managers or HR the need to create policies for valuing people, usually with the requirement of not involving financial gain.

Then we find:

  1. a culture against the valuation of the individual, after all, the whole is greater than the parts; or
  2. an HR policy for the valuation of individuals.

Invariably, discourse and culture overpower any policy, for it is far more “politically correct” not to speak about individuality. In the background, as mentioned, this generates the classic case of the egocentric modesty. Someone on this situation meets no limits: then can even boycott those who stands out and are proud of their accomplishments…

Reality check: Do you want to know when a collectivist manager is present and will never follow the individual talent valuation policies? He frequently uses the phrase “no one is irreplaceable” not as a consolation for a loss but as a threat to anyone who craves a promotion. This guy/gal will deem everyone as “medium”. Will never have “best in class” neither “poor performers”. Everyone stays on the middle.

Collectivism and the Promotions

One of the most ridiculous things I’ve been reading was the company that only hired people who made mistakes with a “me”, but who only talked about success as a team (we).

I do not know what kind of people they expect to have in such a place: talented people endowed with a hypocritical and modestly false speech or mediocre people, who probably had no relevant role in team victories. That is such an nonsense that, here in Brazil we had the wonderful invention of “we as first person singular pronous” (or what I call, the “Brazilian soccer  player speech”).

I guarantee one thing: an individual achievement or contribution will certainly do the achiever or contributor proud of his work and possibly to feel good about it. Furthermore , great painters always sign their works and there is no problem in that.

“But modesty is not a problem per se.” Yes it is. I comment on this in Self-development . Read it there (unfortunately, only in Portuguese).

Why do I criticize this? Because it’s just crap. I have never seen, in these companies that scream collectivism of teamwork, something like “team promotion”. The collective work and performance is valued without valuing the collective itself. There is no shortage of arguments for such behavior and usually when one “collectivee” asks for anything, answer is that contributions are not equal. A complete lack of common sense, present in every bad company.

Before someone argues, bad companies can be very successful, as a very nice bridge can be built by slaves…

But when does ‘me’ becomes a problem?

Well, this is so hammered that I’ll just quote examples:

  • When used to the detriment of others;
  • To think that the others are expendable and volatile (only I am of importance);
  • Confusing value x importance x price (payment);
  • Being a technocrat;
  • Find that every colleague is a competitor (common in sales);
  • Managers who consider everyone replaceable, at any time, in anyway;
  • The list goes on…

Individuality in Teamwork

Teamwork is, in a way, collective and has much base in some collectivist disciplines. It is impossible to set up a team where no one gives up, no one agrees to help the colleague. Usually, ego centrism is opposed by humility.

A person has to be humble to be proud of having done an exceptional job meanwhile not presuming to be the best, to be grateful for the team that helped him/her to be this unique. It is humble one who understands that all activities are important, even when the other has such a function with different value and compensation. Above all, those who knows how to put their individuality for the good of the team and put themselves along with their talent and their best at the disposal of others are those who will accomplish more for both the team and themselves (the modest usually wants to avoid the responsibility of being the main ingredient for any recipe).

In fact, this is one of the greatest tools of great talents and of every great manager: they know how to put their best skills and the best of their ability to use but they also know pretty well how to fill their skill gaps using the best skills of their colleagues and their team.

I like to think that the sky is always big enough for every star to shine on its own and to be appreciated. But when someone behaves like the sun, well… No one can look at the sun long enough to enjoy it.

About rftafas 183 Articles
Ricardo F. Tafas Jr graduated in Electrical Engineering at UFRGS with focus on Digital Systems and achieved his Masters also in Electrical Engineering on Telecomunications Network Management. He also author of "Autodesenvolvimento para Desenvolvedores (Self-development for developers). Ricardo has +10 years experience on R&D Management and +13 years on Embedded Eystem Development. His interest lay on Applied Strategic HR, Innovation Management and Embedded Technology as a differentiator and also on High Performance Digital Systems and FPGAs. Actually, he is editor and writer for “Repositório” blog (, editorial board member at Embarcados (https://embarcados.com.br) and he is Management and Innovation Specialist at Repo Dinâmica - Aceleradora de Produtos.
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