Individualism vs. Collectivism

When should the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many

There have been a number of debates on the radio in recent months that have centred on the discrepancy between policy decisions that affect many people and the impact of those decisions on individuals. 

The most recent one I heard concerned the Scottish Government’s proposal for the age at which young people can legally purchase alcohol be raised from 18 to 21.  This follows a number of pilots in certain areas of Scotland where the result was a significant reduction in anti-social behaviour.

Even though the outcome in the pilot studies seemed to provide a compelling case for the proposal, the majority of the people calling the phone-in were against it.  The reason was that the majority of the callers were people under the age of 21 and they, unsurprisingly, did not want to have their liberty restricted in this way.  They have a point – why should they have their liberty curtailed just because other people drink to excess and cannot behave responsibly?

A similar debate concerned the financing of medicines.  The Government has to evaluate medicines on the basis of their cost-effectiveness, otherwise the cost of the NHS could be astronomic.  But if you are someone being denied a life-saving drug on the grounds of cost, the argument does not seem reasonable.

In both of these cases, the real issue is not the cost of medicines or the minimum age for purchasing alcohol, it is the clash between the rights of the individual and the rights of the many.

Organisations regularly face similar dilemmas – weighing the requirements of individuals with the aim of fairness and equality for all.  It is for this reason that contracts of employment are standardised and why pay and benefits are banded according to factors such as grade, experience, length of service etc.  The assumption is that rules ensure that everyone is treated equally, which in turn ensures fairness; but do they?

The problem is that the criteria we use are generally far too simplistic to account for the complexity of the situation.  Let’s consider the case of the medicine again.

Suppose you are suffering from a terminal illness, that you have to pay for all medicines yourself and that a drug costing just £1 will completely cure you.  You wouldn’t think twice, you’d put your hand in your pocket and buy the drug in an instant.  But supposing that the drug cost £1m and would only extend your life by a day; then you might make a different decision.  You might decide that it would not be worth selling all your possessions and saddling your family with debt simply for one extra day of life.

It is clear therefore that somewhere between £1 and complete cure and £1m and a temporary stay of the inevitable there lies a position where the decision you might take would change.

Now suppose you are the Government and you have to make that decision on behalf of someone else.  To make the decision you would probably want to know a lot more information.  For example, how old is the person in question, do they have dependent relatives, are they otherwise healthy or is this just one of many health issues they have.  It’s not that you are trying to judge the worth of their life, simply that you are trying to assess where the point is that the decision switches from one answer to the other.

Making decisions like this would not be an enviable task, but although the stakes are rarely so high, managers have to make similar decisions in all sorts of organisations on a regular basis.  For example, when there is a change to the terms of the pension scheme, when shift working needs to be introduced, when pay scales require change, when terms need to be regularised across merged companies, and so on.
In each case, the decision-maker is attempting to balance the interests of the individual against the interests of the organisation overall – as all the evidence shows, it’s an impossible task.

So why do we do it?

Standardised contracts of employment were an invention of the industrial revolution.  The growth of large, capital-intensive industries required huge numbers of workers to perform standardised tasks.  A one-size-fits-all employment contract was therefore a good idea.

But in many of today’s organisations, machines have replaced people in performing purely mechanical and repetitive tasks; the people are therefore employed to think and to add their personal talents and individualism to the job.

Furthermore, in teambuilding we are looking to create synergy by combining differences rather than simply recruiting more people with similar traits and abilities.

The time has therefore come to begin rethinking our policies and procedures.  To retain standardisation only in so far as it relates to our purpose and values and tailor everything else to the requirements of each individual.

Many industries are already taking this approach with their customers – is it time we started doing the same for our employees?
About the author
Alistair Schofield is managing director of Extensor Limited and can be contacted at .