While we’re all individual humans, we organize ourselves into collectives. Whether we’re talking about private business, public government, community organization, or family, we do our best work and form our society only when we are together. Observing this dialogue between the individual and the collective, I have noticed two fundamental ways of orienting to the interaction: from the outside-in and from the inside-out.
Organizationally, we are inclined to look outside-in. We start with the organization, thinking about strategy and culture, structure and operations. We focus on collective goals and what the team or individual needs to do to support them. In this view, the individual is an agent of the collective. From the outside-in, we see the individual (sometimes interchangeably) as one piece of the puzzle.
As individuals, however, we live our lives inside-out. We ask ourselves: What do I want? Where am I going? How do I fit into this world? We may be supportive of collective goals and empathetic to others, but our primary lens remains the self.
The challenge is this: As leaders of organizations, we may pride ourselves for thinking about the ‘people dimension’ of our endeavor. We ask: What will they think of this new direction? How should they act to support this change? But even while focusing on the individual, we nearly always retain an outside-in perspective. We look for individuals to enact a set of behaviors, to embody a culture, or to invest their discretionary energy in a collective effort, regardless of who they are or what they care about. We consider the individual, but we still see them as means to the collective end.
Unfortunately, this viewpoint ignores half of who we are. We all play a dual role: we are fully members of the collective and also fully unique individuals. When striving together, we each inhabit a combined role as our ‘organizational self.’
Power comes when leaders enlist the fullness of this ‘organizational self’ – when they put the outside-in and inside-out perspectives on equal terms. For example, intentional leaders might talk about collective vision for an organization, but also create space for individuals to articulate their vision of self. The goal here is not that the collective informs the individual’s goals, but that they serve as equal inputs to individual action within a collective effort. Only by bringing these two together do we become powerful, committed individual actors, working collectively to something that is meaningful on multiple levels.