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Organizational Cultures
Culture and influence in the workplace: Collectivism vs Individualism
Sharon Monteiro
October 1, 2021
7
mins

"East vs West"

"Community vs the person"

"Collectivism vs Individualism"

The notions attributed to collectivist and individualistic cultures are well-recognised and frequently pitted against one another. Culture is a singular factor that can have an influence on how people think and behave. Within this significantly vast field of study, a particular area that cross-cultural psychologists often study are the differences and similarities between individualistic cultures and collectivist cultures.

Individualistic cultures are those that prioritise the needs of the individual over the needs of the group. Here, individuals pride themselves on their autonomy and independence. As a result, social behaviour at large is dictated by the attitudes and preferences of individuals.

Collectivist cultures prioritise the needs and goals of the group over the needs and desires of an individual. Hence, in such cultures, an individual’s relationship with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between them plays a central role in each person’s identity.

Geert Hofstede and the Cultural Dimensions Theory

In today’s increasingly global world and workplace, the cultural differences in leadership has become a prominent topic of discussion in society. Professor Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory, an internationally recognised framework for cross cultural interactions based on six key dimensions was a comprehensive study on culture and its influence on values in the workplace. Individualism versus collectivism is one among the important dimensions in Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Index.

Hofstede defined culture as, “The collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.” The concept of culture, its causes and its effects, are subject to continuous research, theorisation, and discussion. The culture of an organization is informed by its perception, evaluation and reaction to the internal and external factors shaping it. Culture influences behaviour, and is therefore significant to the performance of an organization.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

When comparing the United States and China, there is a huge difference in Hofstede's individualism-collectivism dimension. On the individualism index, the United States has an index number of 91 out of the full score of 100, whereas China has a significantly lower index score at 20.

Collectivism focuses on the group, while individualism focuses on the individual. As corporate ideologies, the two have immense influence over leadership and organizational management. Individualist leadership believes that an organization’s success depends on its ability to foster the unique, creative contributions of the individuals in the workplace. Collectivist leadership stresses on the interests of the company as a whole rather than individual interests.

However, in practice, leadership and organizational culture is neither one or the other, and representations of both are present in some aspects in every leader and organization.

Collectivism

Countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Indonesia lie among the most collectivistic cultures of the world. It means that these cultures, among many, highly favour a strongly defined social framework in which individuals are expected to conform to the ideals of the society and the in-groups to which they belong.

In the workplace, collectivist cultures focus on the good of the team and the company over those of the individual. In such a setting, everyone’s looking out for each other’s best interest. The values of acceptance, belonging and being a team player are deemed advantageous when working in a collectivist culture.

In a collectivist workplace culture, decisions are made through collaboration and group consensus. They focus on the importance of team or organisation goals and needs. The downside  to collectivist company cultures is that they are more likely to exist in a homogenous environment. Employees are strongly encouraged to adopt the values, views, and motivations of the group, and are consequently discouraged form expressing their own individual values, beliefs, and motivations.

However, working together to achieve a goal is a fundamental aspect of human nature. In has indeed brought the human human civilization to our current era of progress. From corporations to democracies, to community groups, cooperation has worked for the betterment of everybody involved.

Collectivism doesn’t necessarily have to be a utopia, and neither does it have to look like a restrictive and paranoid culture where individualism isn’t allowed to thrive. The workplace, as we know it, is filled with nuances.

Individualism

In an individualistic workplace culture, focus is drawn towards the individual employee and their specific needs. Individualism grew to be a central part of the American culture by the 19th century, and continues to flourish in all aspects of American society, including work. Individualistic workplaces tend to be highly competitive, because it encourages employees to believe that performing their best will enable them to reach their professional goals, which will make them efficient and effective.

Employees working in an individualistic work culture tend to be highly productive and self-motivated. They are encouraged to be expressive and unique. Work done out of one’s own self-interest is expected and encouraged because leaders believe that autonomy and personal incentives are what individuals need to be happy and driven in the organization.

However, increased focus on the individual may bring positive attention to one, but alienate the rest. Collaboration might be viewed as worthless or an inconvenience. Employees in such a organisation may feel immense competition, which can consequently induce insecurities, stress, and anxiety. Working under high levels of stress will also leave employees feeling burned out.

The solution to a healthy individualist work cultures is to understand how to positively integrate it into the workplace. Leadership can offer trainings to show employees how harmony and collaboration in the workplace can help everyone reach their individual goals. Employees can compete in a healthy environment and still maintain the well-being of the team and the organization.

The influence of two

Although collectivism and individualism are often pitted against one another, the reality is that communities, societies, nations and organizations cannot be defined as purely collectivistic and individualistic. Organizational cultures don’t fit into neat square boxes. They evolve, change shape and form, are nuanced, and exist between blurred lines.

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