Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Collective Responsibility

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“Childcare is a collective responsibility” – Women’s Agenda

“Keeping deserts clean is a collective responsibility” – Gulf News

“Eradicating corruption is a collective responsibility” – Nigerian Tribune

“Let’s take collective responsibility for our problems” – President Mahama – Ghana

“Safety, security of women in public places is a collective responsibility”– News Track India

It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us – Hillary Clinton

“Collective punishment is when a penalty is meted out to all members of a group, without consideration of an individual’s involvement in the group’s activity. Under the 1949 Geneva Convention, collective punishment is a war crime.”


There are elements of the fields of justice and ethics that deal with the concepts of collective responsibility and collective punishment vs. individualism. If something awful happens to an individual because of the actions of a single person or a small number of people, can blame be placed on the larger society? If society as a whole creates conditions which are disadvantageous or worse resulting in physical, emotional or financial injury to a segment of that society, can punishments be meted out to individuals who collaborated, individuals whose defense might be that they were just following “orders” or that everyone else was doing it so why am I being singled out for punishment? Does society as a whole have a responsibility to individuals or small groups within that society to ensure just and fair treatment by others within that society? Protecting minority groups from the tyranny of the majority? Our founding fathers thought so.

Our society which is made up of many different and overlapping groups forces us to consider if we are collectively responsible for the welfare of those who reside within our society or organizations, or to state that it is every person for themselves. Are we a country of fiercely independent individuals who built what they have without any external help and societal benefits or are we all interdependent products arising from a culture of collaborative assistance that we have created? Does it in fact take a village, a whole civilization to allow those who reside within it to flourish? And who gets to decide if certain segments of that society get benefits or advantages beyond what others do? If we are in fact all in this together, is it acceptable to have some segments of society treated as second class members, without all the privileges that others within that society enjoy? You wouldn’t think so, would you?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice, famously stated that “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society”, and that quote is chiseled on the facade of the IRS building in Washington DC. The implication of the quote is that taxes provide the infrastructure and fulfills the basic needs of the nation which allows for civilization and individuals within that civilization to flourish and certainly takes a “we are all in this together” viewpoint.

This is a very tricky and subtle topic however, which many people want both ways. They want the benefits of collectivism when it suits and the sense of larger freedoms, or should I say the sense of carefree existence of individualism. For instance, many CEOs work to create a sense of “we are all in this together” and “everyone together is responsible jointly for our success”. And they work just as hard when something goes wrong, the London Whale for instance at JP Morgan, to characterize the misdeeds as a rogue person, a one-off event and that the organization as a whole is blameless. The US Government seems to go along with that except in very rare cases. Most often when a misdeed within a company occurs it is an individual that is charged with a crime not the company itself, unless a finding is made that the criminal activity is widespread and pervasive (societal) throughout the organization. When a company or an organization is charged with a crime and found guilty, that company or organization rarely survives.

If we are in fact all in this together, where we are collectively responsible, what about collective punishment for societal misdeeds? The Geneva Convention seems to frown on that, but that is exactly the concept behind reparations to a group that is harmed by society overall. Germany paid and is still paying reparations to Holocaust survivors and the notion of providing reparations to the descendants of slavery here in the USA comes from the same place. I was not a slave holder and none of my ancestors were, but I live in a society where that event occurred and because of that, the society I live in can be seen as having a collective obligation to those harmed. Even to those descendants of those harmed, given the degree of harm that occurred. Others reject that notion and object that they have no obligation to a group harmed by events that happened long ago and did not involve them or any of their ancestors.

The guilty finding in the Steubenville, Ohio high school football player rape case was a finding against two individuals who committed rape. But the media frenzy that the case generated was not so much about whether the 2 boys committed a crime, but about the society pressures that came to bear regarding what to do about it and how the whole thing was playing out in our new collective conscious called social media. The Steubenville society as a whole, as well as the individual members, is being judged. And there is now talk about a grand jury to determine if charges should be filed against parents or any others that allowed 16 and 17 year olds to consume alcohol at their homes and against the football coach who may have tried to squash the whole investigation, a hint at a broader sense of blame for people who created conditions that led up to the rape or tried to cover it up.  What about the mom of the 16 year old girl who drunk herself into oblivion, does she have any responsibility for monitoring the behavior of her young daughter? The young woman is the victim of a crime, but there is likely enough blame to go around for the people who created conditions that allowed the crime to occur. Individualism vs. collectivism; the individual boys are being held accountable, but the next question is about whether the society, the culture of Steubenville, created the conditions that allowed this to happen. Are we collectively responsible for looking after the welfare of individuals, of our children? If so there is a much larger problem to fix there, a problem that sending two boys to detention for a year or two, by itself, will not fix.

The gun violence that permeates our society is another area where the debate is not only about guns but about the responsibility of the individual vs. society. Do individual freedoms give way to collective benefits to create a safer society? The data seems very clear that in states with tougher gun laws there is less gun violence per capita including suicides that make use of guns.

Individualism vs. collectivism is debated within work environments very frequently as well; it may just not go by those names. How many times have you heard organizations talk about the expected increase in performance they would achieve if only they could break down organizational silos and have the organization work more cohesively? I have heard it plenty of times. And in preparing for a panel discussion I am chairing at a conference in a few weeks on Steve Jobs’ leadership style, I came across an interesting tidbit. He had his company operate using only one overall P&L statement. In other words, each division, whether they were the pc group or the phone group or the software group etc., did not have their own profit and loss statement by which to judge their performance. The performance of the company overall was the benchmark of how well the individual components were doing. That increases the need to have all pieces of the organization perform well, and the desire of the individual components to help each other, if you want the organization to look good financially. Collectivism, in one of the most individualistically, from a talent perspective, driven organizations that there is. And it seems to have worked pretty good for them.

There are no easy answers as to when we as an organization or as a society should lean either towards individualism or collectivism. What does seem clear is that those who espouse all one way or the other have much to learn from the lessons of history and the lessons of organizational performance.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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