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The Individualism-Collectivism dimension in Hofstede's national culture model

Knowing the findings from Dr. Hofstede's research, reflected in his national culture model, helps us avoid falling into prejudice or stereotypes. This information is valuable as it allows us to broaden our perspective and make more informed decisions. It also invites us to reflect on the different ways of thinking, speaking, feeling, and acting among people who grew up in a society where self-orientation is more critical than group orientation and vice versa.

This time, we will focus on the dimension of individualism-collectivism in Dr. Hofstede's national culture model. I will also share some reflections and learnings I have gained over more than eight years of experience in leadership development and building high-performing multicultural teams.

This dimension helps us reflect on the predominance of group interests, which we can identify as collective interests or the interests of "us," compared to individual interests, which we can identify as the interests of "me."

A simple way to explain the dimension of individualism-collectivism in Hofstede's national culture model is that it refers to the conflict between group and individual interests.

To illustrate, let's start with this example: Swedes and Latin Americans have different ways and concepts about the roles of personal relationships in business. In the case of Swedes, business is conducted with a company, whereas for Latin Americans, business is with a person they have met and trust. If a person is not well-known enough, Latin Americans prefer that contact is through a mediator who can generate trust between both parties.

Based on the above example, we can say that in collectivist cultures, such as in Latin America, greater importance is given to group ties and loyalty to family and the group. In contrast, individual interests and independence prevail in individualistic cultures like Sweden.

Hofstede asserts that at the root of these differences in cultures lies a fundamental problem of human societies: understanding the role of the individual versus the role of groups.

Let's remember that the first group in our lives is always the family we are born into, but family structures can differ among societies. In most collectivist cultures, the family in which a child grows up is composed of a group of people who live together.

Let's remember that the first group in our lives is always the family we are born into, but family structures can differ between societies. In most collectivist cultures, children grow up in a group of people living together. This group doesn't only refer to parents and siblings but also includes grandparents and nannies, who play an essential role in these cultures.

From a linguistic perspective, we can see that children naturally grow up referring to themselves as "us," which gives them a sense of identity and unique security to face life's challenges. And, why not say it, to also share their joys. In this case, children naturally develop a lifelong loyalty to their group, with the moral pressure to know that betraying this loyalty would be one of the worst things a person can do in life. In collectivist cultures, there is a mutual relationship of dependence between the individual and the group, which is both practical and psychologically significant. I was born and raised in a collectivist culture, and I can confirm that this is very consistent with my life experience.

On the other hand, there is a minority of people in this world who live in societies where individual interests prevail over group interests, which Hofstede called individualistic societies. In these societies, people are classified not by belonging to a group, like in collectivist cultures, but by individual characteristics. Education aims to enable children to develop and become independent, so they are expected to leave their parents' homes as soon as they can care for themselves. It is common for these children to minimize their relationships with their parents or even entirely separate from them as they grow up.

In this society, a person is healthy and deserves respect when they don't depend on a group practically or psychologically.

In this context, I am pleased to recall the definition of the second dimension of Hofstede's cultural model, which includes two poles or orientations: individualism and collectivism.

Individualism refers to societies where the ties between individuals are loose, and each person is expected to take care of themselves and their immediate family.

On the other hand, collectivism refers to societies where people integrate into solid and cohesive groups from birth, which protect life in exchange for unconditional loyalty.

In this dimension, Hofstede made the levels of individualism and collectivism evident through the following questions: try to think about those factors that would be important in your ideal job, regardless of how present they are in your current position.

The base question was: "How important is it to you...?" adding a factor individually until reaching a total of 14. Each of these 14 factors was rated on a Likert scale from one to five, ranging from high importance to very little or no extent.

The response patterns of respondents from 40 countries on the 14 factors reflected two underlying dimensions, which are individualism versus collectivism and masculinity versus femininity. We will explain the latter in another separate article, as it represents one of the six dimensions of national culture in Hofstede's model.

The dimension of individualism versus collectivism had a strong association with the relative importance given to the following work goals:

When talking about the individualistic pole, we refer to personal time, that is, having a job that allows you to have enough time for your personal or family life. Freedom refers to having enough autonomy to approach your work with your focus and face the challenges it brings. It means having a job with challenges to fulfill, one in which you can obtain a sense of accomplishment.

For the collectivist orientation pole, we talk about training, an opportunity to improve skills and learn new things. It also implies having optimal physical conditions in the workplace, such as good ventilation, lighting, and adequate space.

Based on the data obtained by Hofstede, we have found a fascinating finding regarding the relationship between collectivism and power distance. Many countries that score high on the power distance index also score low on the individualism index and vice versa. In other words, these two dimensions are often negatively correlated. This insight implies that countries with a high power distance tend to be more collectivist, while countries with a low power distance tend to be more individualistic. However, there are exceptions. Latin European countries, particularly France and Belgium, combined a medium power distance with solid individualism.

In my experience, leading cannot be the same in an individualistic culture as in a collectivistic culture. Effective leadership must consider people's motivations, which vary considerably depending on their personality and the national culture in which they were born, grew up, and mentally formed. An introductory orientation towards the self compared to a direction towards the collective demands a different leadership style. This approach implies appropriate language and a deep understanding of people's motivations.

One of the significant challenges for intercultural leadership lies in the difference between the exclusivism of collectivist societies and the universalism of individualistic cultures.

Exclusivism refers to the difference in value standards between members of a group and those outside of it. People who belong to and are accepted in specific social groups will receive preferential treatment compared to strangers.

On the other hand, universalism refers to the idea that the same value standards should be applied to everyone.

Here are three recommendations for working and collaborating with people from individualistic cultures:

  1. Promote autonomy and independence: In individualistic cultures, people value making independent decisions and solving cultural problems. To effectively work with people from such cultures, it is essential to encourage their autonomy and give them the freedom to make decisions and take on responsibilities. This type of interaction may involve delegating tasks, allowing them to work autonomously, and providing support when needed.

  2. Value individual achievements: Individual accomplishments and successes are essential in individualistic cultures. Collaborate effectively with individuals from such cultures, recognizing and valuing their achievements. This practice includes publicly acknowledging their contributions, providing opportunities for personal growth and development, and creating a work environment where they can stand out and be recognized for their accomplishments.

  3. Promote clear and direct communication: Clear and direct communication is appreciated in individualistic cultures. Avoid ambiguity or indirect communication; be clear and concise in your messages. Additionally, be receptive to giving and receiving direct and constructive feedback.

Here are three recommendations for working and collaborating with people from collectivist cultures:

  1. Understand and respect the importance of group bonds: It is crucial to deeply understand the norms and values of individuals with strong connections and loyalty towards the group in collectivist cultures. It is essential to avoid cultural biases and stereotypes to foster effective collaboration. If a person risks exclusion from their social group, they are likely to do what the group tells them, whether directly or indirectly.

  2. Promote collaboration and participative decision-making: In collectivist cultures, collaborative decision-making is vital, ensuring that the group supports and agrees with them. Encourage all team members' participation in decision-making and promote a cooperative and team-oriented environment.

  3. Adapt leadership and communication from a collective perspective: In collectivist cultures, it is essential to emphasize the importance of the group and encourage participation and collaboration. It is also necessary to consider language and nonverbal gestures, as they vary across cultures. Being sensitive and flexible in leadership and communication will help establish effective relationships and build high-performing teams. The key to working and collaborating with people from collectivist cultures lies in understanding, respecting, and adapting to the cultural norms of the groups.

To conclude, let's summarize: the Individualism-Collectivism dimension in Hofstede's national culture model has implications for how people relate in the workplace, how they make decisions, and their concept of success. For example, in a collectivist culture, loyalty and collaboration have greater importance, while autonomy and personal achievement have a higher value in an individualistic culture.

Hofstede's research reveals that this dimension correlates with power distance in countries. Generally, countries with a high power distance tend to be more collectivist, while countries with a low power distance tend to be more individualistic. However, there are exceptions to this relationship, such as Latin European countries.

For intercultural leadership, it is crucial to consider these cultural differences and adapt the leadership style according to individuals' individualistic or collectivist orientation. Understanding individuals' motivations is vital as they vary based on their cultural background. The intercultural leader must also consider the differences between the exclusivism of collectivist societies and the universalism of individualistic cultures.

In conclusion, the Individualism-Collectivism dimension in Hofstede's national culture model allows us to understand the differences in the importance of group and individual interests. It has implications in the workplace and intercultural leadership.

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