When talking about cross-cultural communications, you’ve got to consider cultural values dimensions. They are an important piece helping us make sense of all the differences and similarities we are experiencing, as well as give us the language to discuss our challenges.
As part of your cross-cultural learning, I would love to introduce you to some of those dimensions. You can then use this knowledge as lens to reflecting on the intercultural situations you encounter. The classification I will be sharing with you over the coming weeks is based on research by Cultural Intelligence Center in the US, which identified ten of those dimensions. You can already also find an overview of Erin Meyer’s dimensions on the blog though which come at it from a slightly different angle, but both are very useful.
What is an Individualist and Collectivist approach?
The first spectrum we will look at is Individualism versus Collectivism, which is the extent to which your personal identity is defined in terms of individual or group characteristics. As you read through, think about where you feel like you fall on the spectrum. You’re never just one or the other, but rather, your natural preference comes at a certain point on the continuum.
Individualists may be more motivated by personal goals and achievements as well as recognition, they like working alone and are more comfortable with the responsibility related to this autonomous work. This does not have to mean that you can only be individualistic in a position where you don’t have a team, are a manager or work on your own as a freelancer. It is as true for a team member! You can be assigned your own particular task to complete as part of the project and then are assessed based on how well you have completed the task. The US, based on research, is quite far to the Individualist side of this dimension’s continuum, meaning that statistically many people who come from this country would be more individualistically-oriented. You will find many different personalities within those millions of US citizens of course. But the system, education, work places and how things work (ie. culture) in this country encourage an individualistic orientation, hence why you will find more individualists in the US than, say, in China.
On the other side of the spectrum you will have a collectivist, whose focus is more on the group goals, for whom the longer term relationships and connections are important. Collectivist may not like to be recognised in front of the group, put on the spot and praised just for their input, because they know it’s all a team effort and its respectful to acknowledge that. He may not feel comfortable with listing his own achievements and is more likely to use the form ‘we did’, ‘we achieved’, ‘we completed’, rather than ‘I’ve done’, ‘I’ve completed’. With similar disclaimers as above, the research shows that China culturally is very far to the Collectivist side of the spectrum, meaning that you are more likely to encounter a collectivist orientation when doing business with companies based there or colleagues having strong cultural links to this country.
Why is it important to acknowledge the individualist and collectivist preferences?
Although at first it might seem to you like this fluffy concept, or you might say ‘after all we all work in teams these days’, this cultural value impacts many interactions you may be having daily. Not everyone has to be very close to one end of the spectrum or the other, majority of the people will likely be somewhere in the middle. But the key is to identify the difference between your approach and the other person’s to see how you can manage the relationship more effectively. It’s hard to isolate just one dimension and obviously other factors also impact people’s behaviours, but see the below as an illustration rather than black and white facts.
Imagine someone with a very collectivist preference coming to the US to interview for a job. If the interviewer is not culturally competent enough, they may potentially be missing out on some great talent!
The interviewers very often can expect examples of individual achievements, what the person has accomplished, what activities they’ve led or have been involved in, what events they have organised etc. They expect people to know the STAR models to describe those examples, to use phrases like ‘I took the initiative, gathered people and organised xyz’, or ‘I led the team to…’, or ‘I have been a part of the organising team and responsible for xyz’.
Now, what if the collectivist-oriented candidate would be responding with ‘We organised the event’, or ‘We managed to invite xyz’ or ‘We took the opportunity to ask xyz for help’? The interviewer who would not probe on those responses could potentially very quickly conclude that this person is hiding behind someone else’s achievement, because they don’t have their own, or that they lack personal initiative.
Let’s now look at this situation the other way around – what if an individualist with their responses would enter a collectivist culture for an interview? Again, a collectivist interviewer with low cultural competence levels could conclude that this individualist candidate is selfish, doesn’t know how to work with others and is just too boastful.
How terribly wrong that could have gone for those candidates who had the best intentions!
Teamwork and praise
Let’s have a quick look at working in teams through the lens of this cultural dimension. Individualistic approach is more about autonomy, having responsibility assigned to individuals, everyone doing their bit of work and then putting it all together. It’s clear who was doing what, it’s clear that you will be recognised for your own work if you do things well. The collectivist approach is more about making sure there is a relationship built between the team members, that people are working collectively, together, on different tasks, that they are consulting between each other.
Imagine a situation when the two orientations clash in one team. Someone just may want to have the task assigned and get down to work, while others may want to discuss their bits of work, consult, and work together to achieve the expected goal. The individualist may be perceived as rude and uncooperative, while the collectivists may be perceived as slow and indecisive. Without the understanding of different working preferences this may escalate to a major team conflict if not managed properly.
Equally, in terms of praising for one’s work, in the collectivist cultures you are less likely to get individual recognition for your own piece of work. Rather, your team may be praised and thanked for the task you’ve completed together. You may also be perceived as insensitive if you praise one particular individual from the team in front of a group, while in a collectivist setting. This may lower the trust people have for you massively, and it will be hard to build back.
How to work with those differences?
Given that this dimension itself may be the cause of many misunderstandings, how can you prepare to work with those differences? First of all, always assume that people have good intentions – they just follow their own learnt codes of behaviour! But here are some more tangible tips related to this particular cultural aspect of behaviours.
If you’re more individualist than the person you’re working with:
- Make sure to take the time to build relationship with the people you work with, allow more time for alignment on decisions
- Be careful as to how you praise the individual or team for their good work
- Ensure you understand the real situation and input from the team members before making any hiring/promotion decisions
If you’re more collectivist than the person you’re working with:
- Make sure to allow the person space for their work, assign individual tasks, let them be more autonomous if they need it
- Be prepared to make decisions quicker and take more responsibility even if not in a managerial position
- Do not easily judge being open with personal achievements as being arrogant, but rather you can use it to your advantage to understand the individual’s input into the task/project