Synergy – Ruth Benedict style

Synergy gets used most frequently as a term for the upside of integrating two entities or efforts in such a way that the sum is more than the parts.

For example, the merger of two companies might leverage one companies operational excellence with the marketing prowess of the second company to the benefit of both.

It’s useful to have a word for that but that’s not how I remember Ruth Benedict using the term. If I remember correctly, Prof Benedict tried to analyze the cultures she liked the best and those she liked the least. She coined the term synergy to point out cultures that included a happy matching of individual desires with group needs.

Low synergy: I kill something big and eat it all or keep it for immediate kin.
Low synergy: I kill something big and get a portion exactly equal to everyone else’s.

High synergy: I kill something big. There’s a feast where folks talk about what a hugely awesome hunter I am, I get the choice cut, and everyone eats.

High synergy is the alignment of individual interest with group interests to everyone’s benefit.

It is possible that I don’t remember Prof Benedict’s definition correctly. If so, let me know. I’ll make up a word for my definition of synergy. Consider the common use of the term synergy, we might need one anyway.


As a postscript, I used my version of synergy for years while managing a small department at Mountain Hardwear. I requested two sets of goals for during yearly reviews. The first would center around the individuals goals for themselves — learn something, career advancement, better work/life balance, etc — and the second would focus on their contribution to the organization. We’d then work to harmonize those goals looking for win-win situations where the individual could contribute to both goals simultaneously. Since my objective was highly engaged co-workers, this tended to meet my own personal and business goals of leading a high performing, engaged,  and convivial team.

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