Navigating Cultural Differences Pt. 4: Individualism vs. Collectivism

Have you ever felt tension in a working relationship, but couldn’t put a finger on exactly why? This is often what rifts between individualist and collectivist cultures feel like. They may not be as explicit as conflicts due to direct vs. indirect communication or task vs. relationship differences but they still have a big impact on the relational dynamic.

In an individualistic culture such as that in Canada and the northern U.S.A., freedom of speech and directness is highly valued. Individuals are empowered through their thoughts and speech. What an individual says is usually a reflection of his/her viewpoints, and he/she will take personal responsibility for it. In contrast, a person with a collectivist mindset sees his/her voice as representative–voiced opinions are representative of a whole.

In this post, we will take a closer look at two ways that individualist vs. collectivist differences can have an effect on working relationships.


Group Decision-Making

When making decisions as a group, it is helpful to be aware that not all teammates might feel comfortable voicing their actual opinions due to their cultural preference. Take the following question: “We think this is a great idea and would like to implement it–what do you think?” A collectivist could easily answer with a yes when in reality, their personal answer is a resounding no. The collectivist is cultured to not voice his/her opinion over others, especially if there is an established preference.

Giving a collectivist colleague an honest hearing may require building trust in a longer one-on-one conversation, and asking open-ended, less direct questions about how specific aspects of a plan would work for them.


Familial Obligations

Another factor to be aware of is that opinions of and commitments to family often carry a more significant weight in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures. Individualistic cultures see support and intervention in family matters as a kind of last resort. By contrast, in collectivist cultures, it is not uncommon to be relied upon as wage earner or caregiver for extended family members.

This is where intentionally building relationships with employees comes in. By consistently asking how things are with family, you can discern how work is impacting their family life and vice versa, making adjustments to workload and schedule accordingly.

The big idea in all of this is: with a bit of practise, one can start to recognize verbal and nonverbal indications that various cultural factors are at play. Meetings can be planned accordingly, words can be carefully chosen, and as a result, colleagues can feel heard, respected, and empowered to contribute to the organization!