Superstars, rock stars, and heroes who save the day have fallen out of favor in many organizations.

Now we’re encouraged to celebrate team players who cooperate, collaborate, and play well with others.

They combine their brainpower to deal with the complexity surrounding us.  (Yes, it’s a VUCA–volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—world.) More brains are better than one as it’s impossible for one person to know all the answers, or even pose all the key questions.

Yet, we still need to pay attention to and honor individuals and their personal contributions. 

Any time we ignore an individual’s “superpowers” or even a person’s unique characteristics, we turn a blind eye to our humanity. As a result, we’re doing a disservice to individual team members and the team as a whole that can hurt individual as well as team performance.

Here’s why individual recognition is so important. We humans have two competing social needs—the need to belong and the need to stand out from the crowd. Or in a work setting, stand out on the team.   

Scientists have a name for this dynamic duality: optimal distinctiveness.

Becoming aware of this 27-year-old concept is the first step to improving individual performance and creating more inclusive, better performing teams.  

The second step is finding the optimal balance between homogeneity and uniqueness. This is challenging, not only for an individual, but also for team leaders and especially organizational leaders.

The upside of belonging gives you as a team member purpose, meaning and clarity. Let’s say you’re proud to be a member of a special project team that’s tackling a vital organizational issue, such as expanding services to new customers, including animal owners.

On the downside, you don’t want your group membership to crush your personality or silence your distinct voice, especially when you have a strong point of view. For instance, what if you don’t have much passion or compassion for one of the new customer niches, such as exotic animal owners?

For some individuals, getting and staying in equilibrium with certain groups can be a continual challenge.

As a leader, you may need to make an effort to achieve optimal distinctiveness for your teams or organization unless the duality is baked into your organizational DNA.

For instance, consider Airbnb and Planned Parenthood. Both are built around group belonging and individual uniqueness. Airbnb hosts offer up their personal homes to guests. In Planned Parenthood’s case, stand-alone affiliates around the United States provide reproductive health care and other related services to local patients. These affiliates represent the Planned Parenthood brand as they adjust their delivery to fit their local community.

For leaders in other types of organizations, here are three suggestions for working toward applying optimal distinctiveness:  

  1. Embrace inclusion, recognizing that it affects everyone. As the neuroscientists say, if you aren’t actively including people, you’re accidentally excluding them. The human brain interprets ambiguity as a potential threat, which can make people feel they don’t belong and you as a leader may not care about them. From a practical perspective, as a leader you can make people feel included by being clear in your words and actions that they are members of the group and play an important role. Remind them of the group’s purpose. Keep them regularly informed. Help them and others find common ground as they work. Encourage them to speak up, reinforcing that it’s a safe place. (For more about the importance of psychological safety and inclusion, check out Why you need safety for a high-performing culture.)
  1. Get to know team members as individuals and treat them according to the platinum rule. This means treating people the way they want to be treated. For example, if they prefer private recognition over public recognition, write them a handwritten, personal note to thank them for their contribution instead of asking them to stand up to be applauded at your next town hall meeting. In other situations, be curious about their interests outside of work, such as entertainment preferences, hobbies and family, and ask about them. And support them in bringing their whole self to work and expressing their individuality.   
  1. Champion volunteer issue groups, rather than employee resource groups. As background, the traditional employee resource groups, such as women’s groups, African-American Groups, and LGBTQ groups, heighten the differences among individuals in the workforce. This can lead to two detrimental effects. Those who don’t fit the group membership criteria feel excluded. (This has contributed to many white males feeling they’re being left behind in diversity initiatives.) Also, research has shown that identity groups can act as an echo chamber for individuals, perpetuating self-stereotypes, such as women feeling they lack confidence. By contrast, volunteer issue groups, such as teams working to protect the environment, further education, or address customer concerns, give interested individuals an opportunity to contribute their unique gifts for a good cause and work with others who share their interests.

Yes, there’s pressure between belonging and maintaining individual identity. However, it’s a healthy tension that contributes to our humanness. And if individuals and leaders make an effort to strike a balance both as individuals and teams, they can achieve amazing things together.

How do you balance belonging with standing out?

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