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Covid-19: Individual survival is intrinsically linked to collective survival


By Deepankar Roy*
The idea of the ‘collective’, its importance and power, vis-à-vis that of the ‘individual’, her/his centrality and power, is something that, I believe, we, as a community of humans, have not quite come to terms with. The idea in itself that ‘We are, therefore I am’, is not new. Ubuntu, a Zulu expression, means ‘humanity’, often translated as “I am because we are”—a belief in universal interdependence that connects all.
Today, the ‘collective’ is often being invoked. In a sense, the COVID crisis has brought us all together, or so it seems. Mankind is, perforce, bound by a common goal—that of survival. Whenever individual survival is at stake—and the individual cannot survive without the support of the collective—the common goal, even though not stated explicitly, seems to bind us all.

Goals and Stances

Broadly speaking, there are two stances from where we can move to accomplish a goal. One, the ‘approach’ stance, in which people move towards a goal. In other words, people are keen to achieve or accomplish the goal, the goal serving as their guiding beacon. Two, the ‘avoidance’ stance, in which people move towards a goal to avoid failure. While the approach stance emanates more from a hope of success, the avoidance stance takes shape more from a fear of failure. Both stances are likely to help people reach their goals. After all, people succeed not only because they want to succeed but also because they wish to avoid failure. The energy mobilisation, though, in the two stances is starkly different.
The most critical factor and almost the starting point that helps a group convert itself into a team is the identification and articulation of a unified goal. In order to serve the purpose of getting people really committed to it, the goal needs to be a shared goal and not a common goal. The expression ‘common’ connotes something that is at least minimally present in all concerned whereas the expression ‘shared’ connotes something that has evolved through interchange of thoughts and ideas. It has the scope to represent something that is above and beyond what may be ‘common’ to all concerned. A ‘shared’ goal has the potential to not only incorporate the needs and aspirations of all but also to raise the level of aspiration beyond even the most exalted goal. Such a goal has a ‘pull’ towards which collectives and individuals are inspired to move. Such a goal—some call it a superordinate goal—has the power to sustain the efforts and energies needed to pursue it in the long run. Members perceive that accomplishing such a goal will fulfil their goals as well and add meaning to their lives. A shared goal, therefore, embodies the value and meaning of a worthwhile existence and is not merely for the purposes of survival.

The Role of Fear

In many organizations, fear is the key used to accomplish tasks. Managers often believe that unless their employees are scared of the consequences of non-performance, they will not be motivated to perform well. This strategy straightaway puts performers on the back foot; they begin to perform with the sword hanging on their heads. Quite possibly, one can imagine that such an approach will ensure that employees do their best to keep their jobs and not necessarily be inspired to give of their best. In one successful organization, when I asked the employees what assured them their salary, they said, “Two punch and one lunch!” They knew that they had to check in to work on time, have their lunch on time, and punch out on time!
The problem with goals derived from an ‘avoidance’ stance is that the inspirational value of the goal is missing. Thus, as the fear of failure reduces, people are likely to fall back into their habitual patterns of fending for themselves and become individualistically competitive.

Goals and Crises

In a crisis, such as the COVID pandemic the world faces today, when people’s lives are at stake, we do not have to worry about team work. Team work automatically emerges. Individual survival becomes intrinsically linked to the survival of the collective. Collaborative efforts emerge organically. “We are, therefore I am,” becomes the underlying theme of many an effort. We find many examples of people reaching out, collaborating and supporting each other. Organizations, under these circumstances, may not have to do very much to see team work in action.
However, crises are crises. They do not last for ever. Everyday life is not a crisis. As soon as the crisis begins to recede, that is, the threat of survival begins to go down, the common goal of survival loses its centrality, and people often revert to their patterns of individualistic behaviour, fending for themselves by themselves.
Organizations that take this opportunity to nurture and articulate a new shared vision and goal for themselves, in all probability, will build a sustainable momentum to pursue shared goals and create plans and strategies that add hope, meaning and purpose to people’s lives.

The Manager and Creativity

The creativity of the manager lies in her/his ability to stimulate and nurture a shared future that people feel propelled to pursue because they see these as growth-promoting in contrast to being only survival-ensuring. Managers who engage with people, stimulate, share, listen and together crystallise ideas, leading to the articulation of meaningful goals, lay the foundation of a journey that may well herald a new chapter in the organization’s history.

We Are, Therefore I Am

This expression is not just a slogan. The belief in such an approach is almost spiritual. By spiritual, I do not mean religious or ritualistic. By spiritual, I mean a belief, almost a faith that a power greater than me, knows better than I do. People who have the faith, partly borne out of alert first-hand experience, will truly display the humility to make themselves ‘subordinate’ to the will and wisdom of the collective. This is a huge ask. Chief Executives and Managers are usually fed on the spiel that they better ‘know it all’. After all, what are leaders for? Lack of comprehension about the present and the future, and lack of competence to translate ideas into reality are signs of weakness. So, translating ‘We Are, Therefore I am’, will be a huge leap of faith for many.

*Holds PhD in Organization Development and specializes in Applied Behavioural Science, founder member of the Institute for Group Facilitation

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