What makes cultures different: individual or group first?

Each culture has a smallest unit of focus and identification. You may think that it has to be the individual. However, this is the way it is in only some cultures. Other cultures will have the group as this smallest unit. It is called being a more individualistic or collectivistic culture.

In individualistic cultures, the person is the main entity. People identify first with themselves. In such cultures, the needs of the individual are taken care of first, self-care is very important. It is the “Put your own mask before helping others” safety message in planes. People are expected to be independent and self-reliant. This in turn will guarantee the well being of the groups they belong to. Happiness and self-realisation comes from the individual.

In contrast, collectivistic cultures consider the group as the primary entity. The needs of the individual are met by fulfilling the needs of the group. Identity is through group membership and people are more interdependent. It is much more normal for people to form strong bounds and responsibilities towards each other and stay together, particularly families. The bound can also be with your company for instance. Harmony is a key word for such cultures because it is from the group that the individual will ensure his/her well being. Collectivistic cultures focus on promoting selflessness.

As usual on these cultural differences, it is not one side or the other, black or white. An important aspect of well being is the sense of belonging. So, even in quite individualistic cultures, people still need to belong to groups they can identify with. In the same way, people in collectivistic cultures also need to look after themselves and do not leave everything to the groups they belong to.

From a more practical point of view, what can you do to make your interaction with people from a different side of this continuum positive?

One thing you can do if you are more individualistic is not to force somebody from a collectivistic culture to rush into making a decision on their own. You need to accept that such a person needs to consult with other people and that the decision will be taken as a group.

Another example can be that if you are more collectivistic, you may need to understand that more individualistic people will need time on their own and that they may not always welcome group activities.

What makes cultures different: is being or doing more important for them?

Cultures vary between being very tasks oriented or relationships oriented. This is the doing – being continuum.

Doing cultures focus on achievements, tasks to accomplish, plans, deadlines. Things should be measurable by external standards. The language used by people in these cultures reflect this task orientation, emphasising what you do, actions and so on. Job performance is regularly reviewed and people are assessed on what they achieve or not. People are usually motivated by clear objectives and material rewards.

In contrast, being cultures value more the person than their achievements in themselves. They place more emphasis on the relationships between people than on the tasks that each person has to complete. Success is defined by quality of life, job satisfaction, growth and development rather than by what is accomplished. Language is less direct, less focused on explanations, clear objectives and guidance. Language is primarily used to build relationships, not to get things done. Motivating rewards are usually nonmaterial, such as interesting, satisfying and meaningful job or personal development opportunities.

I guess you can easily see what situations it could lead to when people from opposite sides of the continuum interact with each other. If somebody from a doing culture goes on about the success of achieving a task, gives instructions and rely on the motivation of the achievement itself, it may not cut much to have the task done with people from a being culture.

Conversely, somebody from a being culture may lose people from a doing culture if they are not given clear guidance and their achievements are not recognised.

What is going to be important here to perform as well as you can with people from different sides of the doing-being continuum? First, it will be to understand where you stand. This is because it is the behaviour you will fall back on if you are not aware. Second, be clear about what motivates other people. If not clear, ask them. That will tell where they are on the continuum. Thirdly, try to be about in the middle of the continuum, giving importance to both the person and their achievements. If you recognise and acknowledge both, you are less likely to go wrong.

What makes cultures different: change or stability

You all have read or heard “The only constant is change.”

That’s right that the world is always changing. The pace of change will vary but change is always there. Immobility is not an option.

Given this, you might think that everybody should embrace change. However, this is not the case. And how you see change is mostly cultural.

Some cultures, usually the ones that attach a lot of importance to the past, tend to be less positive about change. It is not that they want immobility. It is that they are more cautious about change. They want it to be gradual, incremental and based on what is already there. These cultures are more risk averse and are not likely to make drastic change. They like to stay within the same paradigm rather than undergoing a paradigm shift.

In contrast, other cultures are more eager to implement wide-ranging, paradigm shifting change. They value innovation and creativity.

It is not that one side is better than the other. It is important to be able to change at the right pace to follow external changes around you and improve regularly. Organisations and societies will fall behind if they cannot change. On the other side, it is also important not to change just for the sake of change. People need some times of stability to adapt to the change and analyse if it actually works. The best is to be able to find the right balance between change and stability.

This is particularly true when you are in a culture different from yours in terms of welcoming change. If suddenly, you are in a new place and try to impose a too fast pace of change, it will not work. You need to slow down to allow others to follow.

On the other side, if you are reluctant to change and are now in a setting used to fast and frequent change, you will need to learn to accept change more and go with the flow. You will gain nothing at all resisting the change that is coming anyway.

As with many other things, when it comes to change, an open communication with all parties involved is absolutely necessary, being ready to change or adapt to the pace of change.

What makes cultures different: working together or establishing individual supremacy?

We are all supposed to be team players, aren’t we? This is a question that comes in almost every job interview and a lot of times an essential criterion in job advertisements. But does this stand the test against really what happens?

Well, in some cultures it will, in others, although they usually present themselves like that, it won’t.

Where cultures are on this continuum will depend on how they view reaching goals and achieving results.

For sure we all have a competitive aspect to us. We would not have so many competitive sports, lotteries, games and so on otherwise.

In some cultures, this aspect will be the dominant one in our interactions with people. When we negotiate, there has to be a winner and a loser. People in competitive cultures have more difficulty understanding about win-win situations. Rewards are to individuals, they are usually not team-based. If they are team-based, it will be usually a team against other teams. People in more competitive cultures work to targets, appraisal reviews, performance and so on. Blame is also more directed to individuals.

Do I make it sound rather negative? Well, such behaviours can and will have negative consequences: sense of failure, loss of self-confidence for instance in “losers”, inflated egos and arrogance for instance in “winners”. It can also decrease productivity and creativity in teams.

On the other side, competition may lead people to individually achieve more than what they thought they could do.

In contrast, some cultures will be more collaborative. People will work together to achieve goals. Rewards are at team level; no single individual is ever singled-out, for recognition or blame for that matter. Collaboration can improve productivity and innovation. It can also lead to more fruitful negotiations for all parties involved. Collaborative cultures will work towards group well-being, harmony and nurturing people (all of them, not just the winners) more.

Sounds positive? Yes it can be but being collaborative also have some drawbacks. Collaboration increases social pressure. It can also lead to overload and burn out if not careful. When decisions and things are done and taken in groups, it means that people will have lots of meetings, many emails and other communication going back and forth.

So again, it is not one side is better than the other (a competitive approach isn’t it when you think so?) and both have advantages and drawbacks. And as every time you are on a different place on the continuum than the culture you are currently in, you will more strongly feel the disadvantages.

When you are suddenly part of a team with different rules, you will need to adapt to that. If you have a strong competitive streak, you will need to learn not to take the lack of individual recognition as a failure on your part. If you are very collaborative and go to a more competitive culture, you will need to be able to accept some personal recognition for instance. Yes it is hard, as like a lot when it comes to culture, it is something that you been prepared for from a very early age. Changing usually involves confronting your values and assumptions to make being in a different culture successful.

What makes cultures different: are you better with a clear hierarchy or a more equal society?

We have all come across places and organisations that take a different view on hierarchy. You will have some organisations with a very structured hierarchy, where the bosses are the bosses. They take the decisions. They demand the respect they think they are due and if it is done well, on the other side, they accept their responsibilities and do so in a way that will help the people below them. Who is higher in the hierarchy in such places is a lot of the time defined by the social status of the person, who that person knows, their age, their gender and that kind of characteristics.

On the other side you have organisations for instance with much flatter hierarchies, where people are considered more equal. Decisions are taken by consensus and everybody in a group will take part into that decision-making process. Status within such a group comes from recent achievements. People are encouraged more to show and take initiative and they also hesitate less to delegate tasks to people below them.

The difference between these two sides is usually relatively easy to see. if you just look at who the managers are for instance, in a more equal organisation they tend to be more diverse than in a more hierarchical organisation or society. Whatever your own preference on this continuum between hierarchy and equality, you will need to adapt to it when confronted with a culture different from your own. The only exception would be if you have the power and authority to change it.

Behaviourally it is not very difficult to actually change it. The problem is that usually your preference runs a lot deeper than just behaviours. It is linked to your values and beliefs. For instance, if you prefer a clear hierarchy, you show respect by deferring to this hierarchy. If you prefer equality, that same value of respect will show very differently behaviourally.

I know that all too well. I think I will never be able to fully accept to do something I do not want to do just because somebody above me asks me to do it. However, I also know when I just need to defer to this because it is the accepted norm of the group. I have experienced both sides in the various countries and organisations I worked and lived in.

It is important to adapt to the local expectations, whether you are the boss or subordinate. If you are the boss and act in an equalitarian manner with people expecting a strong hierarchy, you will be seen as not able to take decisions and insecure. If you are a team member who wants to be heard and participate in decisions when not asked to, you will appear as trespassing on authority and being disrespectful. Whatever the scenario, it is a losing situation for you.

Of course, an open discussion will clarify things but at the end it will not change quickly people’s views on that matter. However, it is not an impossible task and many more authoritarian people have learned to become more inclusive of their team members ideas and can see the benefits this can bring.

What makes cultures different: are rules for everyone or can they be bent?

All societies and cultures have rules and laws. They differ on the following of these rules and laws.

On one side, some cultures think that these rules and laws apply the same to everybody (universalist cultures). It is a one size fits all approach. On the other side, some cultures will adapt how they apply the laws and rules to the context of the situation (particularist cultures).

At the end, both approaches have the same goal in mind: fairness. However, what fairness means differs. What seems fair to some cultures and some people will not be to others. Western cultures tend to think that fairness is treating everybody the same. Different cultures think fairness is context dependent.

Consider this little exercise commonly given (or something similar) to discover where you stand on this topic. While with you, a close friend or family member has broken the law and it resulted in some damage to somebody. You are the main witness. Now, will you stand by the law and have your friend or family member potentially punished or will you stand by your friend or family member? Would your decision differ according to what the situation exactly was for instance?

This difference between universalist and particularist cultures can have significant implications for business for instance. Imagine a company with offices in different places and different cultures. They tried and tested a new system, let’s say a reward system to employees. It worked well and they want to introduce it in all their offices. That will work only if all places have the same idea of fairness. Otherwise, the reward system may not work and even backfire if considered unfair in some offices where employees are from a different culture. It can also have consequences on how a successful candidate is chosen for a particular position for instance.

So what can you do in circumstances when you are with people on a different side on this universalist/particularist continuum, when you have moved to a new country for instance? The first thing to assess is your own preference. The second thing is to assess on which side of the continuum your interlocutors are. You can check whether rules and policies have a prominent place or not, in offices, shops or in the street for instance. Do people wait for the green light before crossing the road? You will see an illustration of this aspect of culture in many aspects of life. Basically, do people behave in an organised or more unruly, independent manner?

Then, if there is a gap between your and others’ preference, you will need to adapt your behaviour and actions towards what is expected. This can be difficult because this aspect of culture underlies what you think is right or wrong, good or bad. So you need to leave your judgement behind and understand that what is right, wrong, good or bad is relative rather than absolute.

Is this something you can do or does it come with difficulty for you?

What makes cultures different: how do you relate to the past, present and future?

The relationship we have with our past, present and future is guided by cultural factors. For instance, cultures that attach more importance to tradition will look more to the past to guide how they should behave in the present and future. Cultures where innovation is more the norm will pay less attention to the past and focus more on the future.

Only the present exists. The past has gone and what you know of it is not the past itself, it is your memory of it. The future has yet to come and also you can shape your future with what you do in the present, you do not know the future.

How can you know how you relate to your past, present and future. Research has used a clever exercise. Imagine each of them is a circle. What would your three circles look like? Would they have the same size? Would they touch each other? Would they overlap? Would they be completely separate? Maybe two touching or overlapping and one further apart?

Our ideas and feelings about past and future will affect our thinking in the present. They will affect our decision-making, how we see life and so on. All three, past, present and future will dictate our actions in the present. Our past experiences, the importance we give the future will influence the actions we take now. After all, all what we experienced in the past makes us what we are today. But it doesn’t have to decide completely who we will be tomorrow. It depends how much you relate to your past and your future.

Most of us are not good at delayed gratification. This is because we have a hard time imagining something happening in the middle or long term future. It is why we need milestones and successes to celebrate regularly when we are on our way to reaching a goal in the not near future. It is why we are good at instant gratification, whatever it is, and are not so good at imagining the consequences of it in the future.

How people or cultures relate to their past, present and future is not easy to appreciate. So what can you do to try and make sure there are no misunderstandings and blunders because of different appreciations of past, present and future?

If you deal at the level of an organisation, what that organisation says about itself with give clues. Is it emphasising its reputation, its long established brand (past), its customer service (more present) or its ability to innovate (future)? Looking at the organisation’s values will give you aan idea.

When it comes to dealing with individuals, it is more difficult. The best is just to be cautious. If you are more future or present oriented, don’t dismiss people’s ideas and feelings if they talk about their past or if they are wary about change and think future is uncertain and scary. As with everything else when you are in a different culture, being open and curious and explaining your own view will help.

What makes cultures different: one thing at a time or OK to juggle?

The person was 10 minutes late for the meeting. After 15minutes, she took a phone call. Then, her colleague came twice to ask questions. Now, she had to go talk to somebody else. The meeting is supposed to finish in 15 minutes and you haven’t got to the heart of the matter.

What is your reaction? Do you find it exasperating or is it normal? Well, it all depends on your culture. It depends what time means for you.

There are two main ways of seeing time: monochronic or polychronic.

In monochronic cultures, you tend to divide your time into tasks that you get done in sequence. Time is about doing. In these cultures, it is expected meetings will begin on time, follow the agenda, people are focused on the task. People apologise if they are late. For such cultures, time is finite, it comes and goes and that’s it. People in monochronic cultures have a more rigid view of time. Examples are North America, Northern Europe and some Asian cultures.

In contrast, polychronic cultures, such as in South America, the Middle East and Southern Europe, time is more about what you are doing at any one point rather than on timeframes in which to do it. You do what is important at the time and time is about forging and nurturing relationships. It is not so much people are multi-tasking (we cannot efficiently); it is they switch more easily from one task to another, and do not see as distractions what could be seen as such in monochronic cultures.

So, what do you do?

  1. Whatever your cultural orientation, if you are to meet with people you do not know, aim to arrive on time. Take something with you to read or do if you have to wait. Or see about having chats with people. This will build the relationships so important in polychronic cultures.
  2. If you are more a polychronic person, try to focus a bit more on your interlocutor especially if this person is more monochronic in their orientations. You will build a relationship with this person this way.
  3. If you are more monochronic in your approach, do not take personally the behaviours of people who have a more polychronic approach. They are not ignoring you.
  4. If mismatch prevents progress, just stop and discuss what is happening.

What makes cultures different: time flies like an arrow or is it meandering?

How we see time and our relation to it is deeply cultural. It will define how we plan our days and how our relationships with others are managed.

Do you get angry if meetings begin late, don’t follow the agenda or run late? Do you get upset and worried if intermediate deadlines and milestones are not met? Have you ever wondered that these behaviours are normal, indeed expected, for other people?

There are two main ways of seeing time. On one side, time is a linear process. Time is scarce. Time goes in one direction, second after second. In Western cultures for instance, aren’t we not talking of time flying, being spent or being wasted? Time is a succession of tasks to be done. Time is to be used efficiently. All time management advice go towards this: some type of to-do list, no procrastination. I know this: I have designed an online course for people needing to manage their time this way.

On the other side, time can be seen as more cyclical. This will be the case in a lot of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Time is seen as plentiful, instead of being scarce. When people see time this way, they take time to take time. They do not rush from one task to the next. They also tend to live more in the present, noticing the present, being in the present more. Time is not about completing tasks. Time is about building relationships, being there when needed for others.

One view of time is not intrinsically better than the other. They are different. When you are not aware of this distinction, can you imagine the frustration it might bring on both sides? If you see time linearly, you probably will have wondered and maybe be annoyed at somebody who seemed to be in no rush at all and not paying attention to the minutes passing by. In contrast, if you see time as less linear, you may not understand why some people seem to be so pushy, wanting you to rush.

Now that you know this, analyse which type you are closer to. When you interact with somebody closer to the other type, remember that their behaviour is not meant to annoy you. Instead, try to adapt your tendencies to accommodate a bit more the other person.

What makes cultures different: thinking analytically or systemically

In the last post in this series, I explained how cultures can define how we think, whether we think more in terms of from ideas to applications or from data to ideas.

There is another big way in which our culture will dictate how we think and this is whether we’re going to chunk down our thinking, that is divide bigger things into more manageable tasks, or weather we look at things in a systemic way, looking at the whole picture.

As with a lot of things each method has its advantages and disadvantages.

In the West, we are usually taught from a young age to think analytically, to breakdown big problems or tasks into smaller ones. It is a mainstay of all problem-solving techniques. The rationale for that is that it will be more manageable and probably less daunting. However, doing that, it is very easy not to realise the consequences of one small tasks on the whole area and sometimes that single smaller task can have devastating effects. It can also bring you into a wrong direction in terms of your overall goal.

Think in terms of an ecosystem for instance. Having this kind of thinking is looking at one species that is getting a little bit too invasive. Thinking analytically will be bringing in a predator to eat that first species without looking at all the potential consequences. And then you realise that that first predator well, not only preys upon the species you wanted it to prey upon but will also prey on other species and begin to wreak havoc in your ecosystem. So, what do you do if you keep with that same type of thinking? You’re going to bring a predator of the first predator you introduced and so on. Basically, that kind of thinking will not look at the big picture.

I contrast, in a lot of Asian cultures for instance and some other cultures too people tend to think looking at the whole picture. This has advantages because you don’t lose sight of your end goal. On the other hand, it can have the disadvantage that things can look rather daunting and it can be difficult in some cases to design a way forward to reach that end goal.

In terms of our ecosystem example, it means that you look at everything that could be done and assess their global consequences, which is good, but then maybe have difficulties prioritising what to do. The good thing is that although our culture has sent us into one direction or the other in terms of this thinking, it doesn’t mean we cannot think the other way. We can practice and learn to think differently. We need to be aware of this thinking and how it affects what we want to achieve. We need to learn to be able to adapt our thinking to the context. It is good for instance that a project manager is very analytical: it allows the manager to plan the project. However, at the same time, the manager needs to be able to think systemically because the project always fits into a wider organisation.