Business Research

Individualism, Collectivism and Team Performance

Thinking about how businesses use teams, and how those teams are comprised, led associate professor of Management Chris Meyer to wonder about individual differences of the team members and how those differences can determine the overall success or failure of the team.

“There’s been a lot of research in the past that puts people into one of two categories,” Meyer said. “It says that people are either individualists or collectivists, and that is based almost entirely on their cultural background.”

For example, people who grew up in the United States are thought to be individualists, motivated by what is good for them personally, and independent and self-reliant. People who grew up in China (or most Asian cultures), on the other hand, are thought to be collectivists, motivated by the good of the group, relying on others and placing priority on the group rather than self.

“But when I starting talking about this with my colleagues, I realized that I don’t buy that,” Meyer said. “I don’t think I’m strictly in one category or another. By the cultural definition, I would be considered an individualist. But I care about my family; I have friends who I look out for. And that’s not unique. I just don’t buy that we are either only individualists or only collectivists.”

He began discussing his thoughts with colleagues John Wagner and John Hollenbeck, from Michigan State University, and Stephen Humphrey, from Pennsylvania State University. The four eventually collaborated to write a paper, “Individualism-collectivism and team member performance: Another look,” which was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

“Together we came up with the idea that people can be ontological individualists or collectivists—that is, they define themselves as an individual or as part of a group—or utilitarian individualists or collectivists—for the task at hand they desire to work as individualists or collectivists,” Meyer said. “While there is a cultural aspect to it, it’s also your deep seeded belief structure.”

Utilitarian individualists satisfy personal aspirations and concerns through individual pursuits. Utilitarian collectivists see life as an effort by members of a collective to fulfill shared desires through joint pursuits.

Ontological individualists believe that the individual is the primary concern in society and see social groups as secondary. Ontological collectivists view groups as the basic unit of humanity.

“We starting thinking about how many organizations use work groups in businesses today, and about the research that said groups perform better and complete tasks more efficiently if the people in them are collectivists,” Meyer said. “But we disagreed that collectivists do better. We know that most tasks take both individual and collective motivation to get done. So if you have a mix of people with both traits, from both ends of the spectrum, we wondered if you would get a better outcome.”

The researchers then set out to develop a measure, based on previous work, to determine if a person’s outlook was more utilitarian or collective. They tested graduate students at Michigan State University and chose participants for their study.

Participants were given two types of tasks to complete. Both had components that required individual as well as group performance to do well. The first task was considered a “tight” task: participants did not have a lot of freedom in the choices they made to accomplish the task successfully. The task itself needed to be important.

“It’s like assembly line work, where there are tight constraints and less opportunity for individualism,” Meyer said.

The second task was considered more “loose”: it had room for individual inputs and fewer constraints, “more like writing a paper or a novel,” Meyer said.

In both tasks, speed and accuracy was recorded.

“Our prediction was that if you had teams with diversity of traits, you would have a better outcome,” he said.

While their hypothesis was supported for speed (the more diverse teams did better), it was not for accuracy.

“Homogenous combinations (all individualists or all collectivists) do better in accuracy,” Meyer said. “We think it’s because consistency is more important for accuracy, but we don’t have data to support that yet.”

Next, the researchers looked at how performance was affected by the way the teams were structured: tight or loose interdependence on other team members. They hypothesized that the tighter the interdependence, the less individualism would matter to the outcome.

While they found that there was no difference when the interdependence was strong, they did find that it was an important predictor when it was weaker or loose. In that instance, both individuals and collectivists had better performance. Meyer wants to do further research into how the factors can combine to show other possible ways to enhance a team’s performance.

“We do so much work in teams, even self-appointed teams,” he said. “That’s the way work is moving. And what this research shows is that while we need people who work well in a collective setting, we need people to be individuals as well to get the maximum performance.”

Meyer also hopes that organizations will look to research when they think about how their business are structured.

“We don’t take enough time to think about how we form our teams. We just throw people together and hope for the best,” he said. “But we’re expecting chance to give us a better outcome when we can build teams that will work better. It takes time and effort, but if we fill positions and create teams based on what we know, we can get a better outcome.”

Meyer believes that employee retention and satisfaction can also be affected by his findings.

“If we know people have different motivations, we need to reward them in different ways, too,” he said. “In the best case scenario, you’ve got a variety of types on your team, so they need to be rewarded in a variety of ways, too. Especially in teams, we tend to forget that people need to be recognized and rewarded as individuals, too.”

In the future, Meyer hopes to find additional ways to help organizations by continuing to research the most practical and successful ways to structure teams.

“We can have such a big impact on outcomes if we put the time in at the beginning,” he said. “Think of sports teams. The really successful ones have made a conscious, sometimes very long-term effort to get just the right people into just the right positions. Business has to start thinking more that way, too.”

View Meyer's article in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
Christopher Meyer
Baylor University