In my 33 years of life, I have been lucky enough to have lived in both Eastern and Western Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East. Add to that international schooling from my early teens, and I practically become a Third-Culture-kid (TKD) adult cliché: someone who belongs nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
Sometimes I get asked what I have found the starkest cultural difference between the countries I have lived in, and the places I have visited – and while my staunch belief is that as humans we are far more similar than we are different – there is one cultural dimension that for me personally has been the most challenging to adapt to.
And that is individualism versus collectivism, as defined by Geert Hofstede.
Broadly speaking, individualism v collectivism is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. People in individualist countries are “I” people – and not just because they use “I” a lot more linguistically than “we”. They generally have looser ties with other people, apart from their immediate family, and they are more likely to look after themselves.
Contrast that with collective cultures where people are integrated into strong in-groups, be it extended families or even larger communities like tribes, clans and so on.
As you can imagine, these differences manifest themselves in many aspects of society.
For example, individualist countries have somewhat unsurprisingly higher divorce rates. Also, they don’t view confrontation necessarily as a negative thing – airing out problems is often seen as both something positive and helpful. Overall, they have more press freedom and a quicker pace of life in general. It’s visible even in the small things – like walking faster when you’ve got no place to be.
Collectivist societies on the other hand are centred around the notion of harmony, because the needs of the group supersede those of the individual. People are a lot less likely to voice concern and disagreement out loud, even if they may feel it on the inside. This also means that collectivist societies can be more exclusionist in their nature – as you are either in the group or outside of it.
It will come as little surprise to anyone that individualist countries are primarily located in the West, with the U.S. leading the field, followed by Australia and the UK, but also the social democratic countries in Scandinavia. On the other hand, we have countries like China, India and Japan being traditionally collectivist, however also many places in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
So, if you find your self in a situation like I did, where you have to navigate between these different mindsets, regardless if you’re a manager or an employee, it can be quite the minefield. First, you have to of course understand the culture you’re dealing with, and then you have to adapt and find the strategies that work.
As an example, employees from a collectivist culture may work harder to achieve goals if this is perceived for the good of their company or group. So, your first task should be making sure that they understand what that greater good is and communicate it appropriately. Remember that in collectivist societies competition is between groups, not individuals, and so has to be the reward. Rewarding individuals might sometimes even disincentivize your employees if they come from a very strong collectivist culture. Simply put, the relationship and harmony within the group are more important than the task. Encouraging everyone to work together with high levels of co-operation can thus be a very effective management technique.
On the other end, employees from individualistic cultures may need to see individual rewards for their efforts, for example a certificate to show they have completed a certain task or training course, or the chance of promotion. It should come as no surprise that generally these employees will be more likely willing to work independently to achieve the goals that are set, and they will prioritise the task above the relationships. The key to remember here is communication. Sometimes we see managers from collectivist cultures forgetting that things aren’t obvious in individualist societies the way they are in collectivist ones. So be specific! Here, frequency and thoroughness is key.
These are of course only a few things to keep in mind. Please do comment below what challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them. I would also love to hear about times where these cultural differences have brought about benefits to a situation or company!