Individual & Group: How to create win-win scenarios for both?

adaptivity collaboration complex adaptive systems Jun 15, 2022
Individual & Group: How to create win-win scenarios for both? by Gemma Jiang, PhD


In this blog post, I continue the conversation from Yin & Yang: A Dynamic Whole by digging deep into another Yin&Yang pair: individual freedom and group belongingness. Like all classic Yin&Yang pairs, these two elements initially have a seemingly opposing relationship that in actuality often have a complementary relationship. Both elements are important. Understanding the inner dynamics of their relationships presents opportunities for win/win scenarios.

I am attracted to this pair due to my personal cultural experience in both the East and the West, as well as my professional experience as a team scientist that routinely faces the task of interweaving individuals into coherent teams. In the following paragraphs, I will share some interesting observations about cultural influence and two strategies to create win-win scenarios for individuals and teams you work with.


Imbalance as related to cultural bias

Are you biased towards conforming to a group at the expense of individual freedom? Or are you biased towards being different from everyone else whether or not the difference has inherent value? Identifying the imbalance is the first step towards restoring balance. Recognizing invisible cultural influence can help devise individualized responses.

Born and raised in China till early adulthood, with ten years of my adult life spent in the United States, I have witnessed the influence of cultural biases. In East Asian culture, group harmony is the priority; in western culture, individuality is the priority.

A personal story will help to illustrate the point of how group harmony can turn into group coerciveness that overlooks individual needs.

About five years ago, I was traveling alone in the southeast part of China. One day I grouped with some fellow travelers on a long bike ride around a famous lake. We had a good time, but one hour into the trip, I did not feel well and wanted to turn back. The rest of the group insisted that I stay with them. I literally felt the pull from the group, that coercive pressure to stay, so that the harmony of the group could be maintained, so my identity in the group would stay intact. That pressure was reflected in the language, the looks, and the resentment from other group members when I finally decided I had to turn back.

That experience prompted deep reflections for me. This was not a long-standing group with a history of doing things together. This was simply some strangers banding together for a one day event. Why did this temporary group feel so entitled to my loyalty? The cultural priority of groups over individuals seems obvious to me. When taken to an extreme, individuals’ needs can often be neglected or overlooked.

Behind the pressure to conform is the fear of rejection and exclusion from the group. Often among the harshest punishment imposed on an individual is banishment to remote places in ancient times, or solitary confinement in modern days.

This coercive group experience in China made a deep impression on me probably because of my heightened awareness of individual choices from living in the United States. However, prioritizing the individual dose not always lead to wise decisions either. For example, for many American children, in order to become their own men or women, they make decisions that distinguish themselves from their parents’ heritage. Whether those are wise decisions or not becomes secondary, as the top priority is to be different, to be distinctive. This bias has led to the discontinuation of many cherished family traditions, which is very sad to witness. The constant drive to be different is fueled by the fear of mediocracy, being ordinary, or resenting uniformity.

The good news is that we can create win-win scenarios. Below I share two strategies.

Two win-win strategies

The fear of rejection and the fear of uniformity are driven by the same root cause: seeking external validation. The questions behind this phenomenon are very similar: what do others think of me? How do I appear compared to others?

Unfortunately other people’s opinions are very often among the most unreliable indicators of where one stands. The opinions usually reflect more about those that give the opinions than those who the opinions are directed towards. Hence it can become unwise to anchor one’s identity in external validation, or lack thereof. Can you imagine trying to gauge measurement from an instrument that keeps changing? As the great mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield taught, there is time to win and there is time to lose, but you can always choose to reside in the harmony of the center. That internal harmony of the center is a much more reliable reference point for personal identity.

There is time to win and there is time to lose, but you can always choose to reside in the harmony of the center. — Jack Kornfield

I often find people who have grown up in the most “regular way” have the most challenges with finding their own voices in groups. It seems like the strongest indicator they rely on is how they compare to others. This is really a poor indicator due to the fact that how others behave changes continuously according to their own changing priorities. It also seems as if there is always an imaginary “standard” they are comparing themselves against, yet how such a standard can be identified is mystifying to me. Maybe the “standard” is “group average”, as advocated by reductionist thinking?

For me personally, growing up in such a non-traditional way has in a strange way freed me from the tyranny of group thinking. Not many people lose both their parents before they are ten and grow up in an orphanage. Since I belong to this unique demographic, I am used to being different from an early age. Being different is indeed something one can get used to.

One additional blessing in disguise in this situation: to grow up away from my biological family also offers me the freedom to explore who I am, with minimum external expectations to fulfill. I attribute the clarity of my inner voice to the lack of external expectations during my early life. This has, in turn, enabled me to be more confident and comfortable with my true self in team environments .

The tug between individual experiences and external expectations is common in daily life. A friend recently related the story of his son’s soccer game. The team lost the game to a much stronger opponent, despite playing the best game they have ever played. The son was torn between celebrating the teamwork and mourning the loss of the game. The teamwork was a positive personal experience true to the son as an individual. The public celebration associated with winning a game was external validation. As he becomes mature, I am hopeful that he can learn to give more weight to his personal experience and be less influenced by the external approval and chattering. That has been an important part of my own journey developing my personhood.

Insofar as society is itself composed of de-individualized human beings, it is completely at the mercy of ruthless individualists. Let it band together into groups and organizations as much as it likes — it is just this banding together and the resultant extinction of the individual personality that makes it succumb so readily to a dictator. A million zeros joined together do not, unfortunately, add up to one.

Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

To live an authentic life is more desirable than to live a life to fulfill others’ expectations. When a person “meets their destiny”, and divests the self of its false wrappings of the persona, they become natural leaders of groups to meet the groups’ destiny. That is the individuation process Carl Jung refers to.

We can anchor our personal identity in a stable internal home by asking some important real questions: What is my purpose in the world? What are my unique gifts to give to the world?

As author Marianne Williamson said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” We can free ourselves of the fear of the light radiating from truly unique personal identities by understanding the inherence coherence between part and whole in complex adaptive systems. Onto the next point.

In complicated mechanical systems, the parts are components of the whole and the parts are interchangeable. For example, a tire is a component of the car, and can be interchanged with other tires. But in complex adaptive systems, the parts become representations of the whole, they are not interchangeable. For example, broccoli is made of self-repeating flower heads, just as each tree branch is made with small branches with repeating structures. In complexity science, this is called, fractal structures.

Similarly, we can think of large social groups as fractals of individuals and smaller groups, each of which have the potential of representing the whole. When each individual acts out of the emerging whole, the distinction between individuals and groups fall away. Individuals break the bound of their smaller self and act out of their bigger self, which is representative of the emerging whole. Groups become extensions of individuals and individuals are representations of groups. The more individuals are aligned with the emerging whole, the better the group functions. Such coherence between part and whole is teamwork at its best. When that happens, the distinction between leaders and followers fall away as well. To lead is to follow, to follow is to lead. No more power struggle, only synergistic efforts.

I have personally experienced such coherence and synergy in body-based practices such as the Social Presencing Theatre, where the collective social field envelops everyone, and the whole group is like one soul in different bodies. I also have similar experiences with team meetings when everyone is totally immersed in the topic at hand and is working towards the same direction. For example, team members “take the words out of my mouth”, or one person helps to explain the ideas another person proposes. These moments are team building at their finest.



The dynamic dance between individuals and groups is accompanied by the dynamic dance between the internal world and the external world. Like all classic Yin & Yang pairs, there is always the opportunity for synergic win-win scenarios.

The implications for such explorations are huge. For example, an individual “residing in the harmony of the center” of their awareness will feel much more confident to challenge group norms, because their sense of self is not anchored in external validation. Another example is an individual who sees themselves in a relationship with the whole is much more likely to support decisions that are not necessarily aligned with their self-interest and are beneficial for the wellbeing of the group, because they recognize the intrinsic interdependence between themselves and the group.

What are your personal priorities between individual freedom and group belongingness? What are your personal strategies to balance the needs of the two? How do you see this new Yin&Yang view of individuals and groups contribute to creating win-win scenarios for both? Any stories to share?

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