CQ – How are we different? Part Three – Individualism versus Collectivism

In the last blog, we talked about cultural dimensions. We can also use the word values and some say cultural value dimensions. However, for simplicity, I am planning to only use the words “cultural dimensions.” A cultural dimension is referring to an aspect of a culture that can be put on a line graph or continuum.

An important reminder from last week’s blog: keep in mind as we delve into this topic that the descriptors of a culture in terms of dimensions will only give an idea. Be careful never to put people in a box, nor to assume everyone from a specific culture will be “just so.” There will indeed be personality differences, as well as the impact of life experiences.

This week we will look at Individualism versus Collectivism, which is the extent to which your personal identity is defined in terms of individual or group characteristics. An individualist is motivated with personal incentives and goals and is more comfortable with autonomy versus working on a team. A collectivist is motivated by group goals; long-term relationships and who knows whom is very important. The U.S. is often described as the most individualist culture in the world and China as the most collectivist culture.

Looking at these photos, how might these children look at personal space or independence differently, based on their upbringing?

How might their upbringing influence the way they will approach a conflict?

Possible indicators of an individualist include desiring personal accountability and saying things like, “I’ll take care of this.” When you are working with an individualist, allow for autonomy and recognize the important or rapid decision making.

On the other end of the continuum will be collectivism. The possible indicators for a collectivist would be the person’s first consideration being the impact on the in-group. That “in-group” could be the family, the village, the society, the class, the team, etc. The collectivist also might say, “Let me check with our team” before a decision is made. When working with someone who is more collectivist, be sure to create time for consultation and consensus-building. Also recognize the importance of building lasting relationships.

If it helps to visualize each dimension, think of a line graph showing a continuum between the two different extremes of that dimension. For example, here is today’s dimension:


Individualism                                                                             Collectivism

When you think about the definition of these two ends of the spectrum, where do you land? Keep in mind there is no right or wrong way to be. One end or the other is not more correct.

If you are interested, you can also look at a handy website where you can put in up to three different countries for a comparison. In the spectrum between individualism and collectivism, the higher the number of the graph, the more individualistic the culture.

Thought for the day: Having lived in cultures that are much more collectivist than the US, I have realized that perhaps Americans have some things to learn. There is value to caring about the group goals, not just focusing on MY needs, MY wants, MY plans. Sometimes we should think about the greater good.

Think about it. When you have tension with someone, how much of that is because of your individualistic perspective? And how can others learn to be generous and helpful if we are always insistent on being independent and refusing to ask for or accept offered help?

Of course, the other side of that question will be, how will someone be able to think for themselves if we are always focused on what the group thinks?

Balance. We always need balance.

If you have ideas or questions about individualism or collectivism, or have an example of a culture clash you wonder about, please write me at lesliepjohnson@lesliepjohnson.com and I will try to address that issue at some point in this blog.