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Collectivist culture in the workplace and around the world

Collectivist cultures are some of the most fascinating types of social organization that humans can build.

They're the opposite to individualistic cultures, and understanding this important distinction will help you learn what really motivates people and how you can best interact with them.

It's not just about societies and governments - it concerns the motivations of families, friends, businesses, church groups, community organizations, and other groups.

Understanding the difference between collectivism and individualism can help you perform and manage people better in the workplace. It can help you understand what's going on in the world and make you a more informed global citizen. It can also help you build relationships with people you might otherwise find difficult to connect with.

We'll start with a collectivist culture definition, then explore some examples of collectivist cultures along with their pros and cons. We'll then take a look at different countries around the world and what collectivism looks like in each of them.

What is a collectivist culture?

A collectivist culture is one that prioritizes the needs of the group over those of the individual.

Cultures like these are proud of their shared history and personal bonds. Relationships are key, and maintaining order in a way that benefits all members is of paramount importance.

You'll find collectivist cultures throughout nations, political systems, ethnic groups, businesses, local governments, neighborhoods, residential communities, and more.

In business, it's a culture that focuses on the objectives of the team and company rather than individual achievement (we'll explore more of this below).

Collectivism often sits across from its opposite, individualism. But it's hard to say certain communities or societies are exclusively one or the other. There's a sliding scale between the two, rather than a binary division.

Working together to achieve a common goal is a fundamental facet of human nature, and has brought us to our current era of civilizational progress. Without cooperation, we'd never have language, cities, mathematics, technology, medicine or money. Human history is littered with collectivist societies and projects. And they persist today - not just in certain nations, but everywhere, from corporations to democracies to community groups, all working together for the betterment of everyone involved.

Collectivism doesn't necessarily indicate a caring and gentle utopia - as we'll explore below - nor does it mean a restrictive, paranoid culture where the individual can't thrive.

There are plenty of nuances, and it's a fascinating topic where culture meets psychology and historical norms are pitted against modern working practices.

What are the downsides of collectivist cultures?

Collectivist culture focuses on the good of the group, but sometimes, this is at the expense of the individual. Whether it's curtailing their freedom or punishing them unfairly, group-oriented communities aren't always kind when someone rocks the boat or disrupts the harmony of the group members.

Collectivists tend to care about the behaviors of their neighbours and peers more than individualists, who have more of a 'live and let live' outlook. This can lead to overactive surveillance, gossip or infighting when social norms are broken.

Films like Hot Fuzz examine the downside of a collectivist culture gone too far. When you aim for 'the greater good' at all costs, it can eventually lead to individual dissenters being served the harshest punishments. In this over-the-top comedy movie the punishment is literally death, but you can imagine a similarly misguided group in a workplace or neighbourhood, ostracizing a dissenter when really a simple talking-to would probably suffice.

In fact, many movies from Hollywood and around the world examine what it means to transgress the unspoken rules of a cohesive group. The 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite is a great example of the tension of group dynamics in a culture struggling with class divides, income inequality, and collectivism vs individualism in a country going through dramatic social change (modern South Korea). The amount of media that explores these issues highlights how complex they can be to truly get your head around, and how they can be interpreted differently by different people.

What is an example of a collectivist culture?

A worker co-operative is an example of a collectivist culture. This is a type of company that's owned and managed by its workers. Every worker owns equity in the business, and participates in the decision-making process. This means that every worker has an interest in the business doing well, and must act in accordance with their shared goals. These types of businesses don't have to be 100% equal for every member - those in leadership positions might own more and therefore be entitled to receive more of the profits.

One type of collectivist culture familiar to those in Western countries is a homeowner association (or HOA). This is a private association of homeowners in a specific location, like a residential community or apartment building, that enforces guidelines for land use, zoning and community behavior.

It's owned and operated by residents, who each have an incentive to maintain the social order within the community. They'll have their own rules around what people can and can't do in the neighborhood, and breaking the rules can result in immense social pressure to conform, or even legal action.

What is an example of collectivism?

A single family unit is the most recognizable example of collectivism. A healthy, close-knit family will act for the good of each member.

It might not be fully equal - families are often hierarchical based on the seniority granted by age - but in general, each member acts in order to obtain peace and prosperity for one another. If the family order is threatened from within by someone behaving poorly, other family members will use shame and other punishments to bring harmony back to the environment.

A public health mandate is collectivist, too. Some of the most visible examples of collectivist behavior after 2020 are the responses to the covid-19 pandemic: social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations. Globally, the response has been wildly different between nations and cultures.

In individualist cultures, compromises had to be made between the curtailing of individual freedoms (during lockdowns, for example) and the benefit of the people as a whole. Collectivist society, in contrast, seemed to have an easier time directing group behaviors to prevent the worst effects of the virus.

The long-term effects of these measures haven't yet come to light, and as the situation hasn't been resolved (at the time of writing) it's unclear as to what was the 'best' strategy. There's certainly a variety of opinions out there.

Collectivist company cultures: pros, cons and how they work

In the workplace, collectivist cultures are ones that focus on the good of the team and company over those of the individual.

Collectivist companies can feel more like a family than others. When everyone's looking out for each others' interests, that's a natural result. This can be a really desirable trait for many people if they value acceptance and belonging. Being a 'team player' is an advantage at this type of firm.

That said, they're not always perfect - 'family' type companies can come with a lot of unspoken rules and unofficial pressures, like staying late after your shift to finish projects during a busy time. Upon joining one you might find that people treat you nicely when targets are being hit, but if things go wrong, you're quickly left out of social gatherings or become the target of gossip for your wrongdoings.

Collectivist companies can also encourage loyalty. If your company really is truly equitable, and staff share the same broad values and goals as management and the owners, then people won't want to leave as much.

If there's a huge gulf between the company ownership and its staff (like in high power distance companies) then staff are more likely to jump ship when a new opportunity arises.

Individualistic companies, in contrast, do things differently. They accept workers spending more time alone or modifying their work space to their own needs. They might be more openly meritocratic, celebrating individual success in the hope it'll spur on others to achieve similar things.

They'll be more open to celebrating unique skill sets and distinctive personalities.

One downside to collectivist company cultures is that they're more likely to exist in a homogenous environment. When people share similarities (like cultural or educational background, for example) it's easier for them to fit in with one another. But companies with a broader range of cognitive and demographic diversity might find friction when trying to integrate people into the group mission.

So this is certainly something to balance - the needs of the group to achieve their goal alongside the need for the variety in human experience that drives creativity and fresh perspectives. It's something that needs addressing right at the beginning of the hiring process - hiring for cultural fit can be a rather collectivist strategy, but comes with the risk of filling your company with clones.

Bridging the gap between cultures

If you're from a more individualist culture and want to work with someone who's used to collectivism, you do need to be sensitive of your differences. Simply being aware of the two is a great first step to strengthening your relationships and communicating more effectively.

Anyone who's travelled or worked internationally can tell you that people can always find common ground. Even from wildly different cultures, people from other sides of the planet can usually bond over topics like family or the weather.

When it comes to working relationships though, it can take a bit more sensitivity as you navigate more complex topics to get the best out of people and minimize the potential for conflict.

In the Fingerprint 4 Success app, you can use the culture compare functionality for better understanding in how to work across cultures.

The tool lets you know which of your motivations might clash with someone from another culture. It identifies where your potential friction points are and highlights where you might find common ground, which can pave the way for more positive communication.

You can also make use of the app's Team Affinities report to identify common ground between team members from different cultures, and the Power of Differences report to help avoid conflict.

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Collectivist cultures around the world

Which countries have a collectivist culture?

Some countries are much more oriented towards collectivism than others - in particular, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Ghana, and Guatemala.

Collectivist countries will shape their social structures to support community, family and society rather than individuals. This will manifest in both official, legal structures as well as unwritten cultural norms. Unity between people and selflessness is rewarded, and people tend to be less isolated and lonely.

You could also link countries with more established social welfare programs to collectivism - take Norway for example, which has high tax rates and generous social safety nets.

Below, we'll look at some examples of the more collectivist countries of our world. Before we get started, it's important to note that these are generalizations. Each country has a wide and varied populace containing multitudes of perspectives, so the individualism vs collectivism debate can make for some heated conversations. 

But we can definitely observe trends from cultural research and overall governance enough to define whether a country is collectivist or not. So let's take a look at some nations around the world and their tendencies towards collectivism.

Is the United States a collectivist culture?

The United States is not regarded as a collectivist culture. Instead, it's seen as one of the most individualistic societies in the world.

Whether you think this is good or bad is a matter of opinion. In general, people in the US are admired and praised for their individual accomplishments; showing great feats of physical ability, intellectual skill, or business acumen. Business leaders that achieve success are praised and held up as cultural icons.

This doesn't always translate to a thriving country at every level, and there are parts of US society that certainly have room for improvement and might benefit from a more collectivist approach. That said, getting into a discussion on these topics can provoke some strong opinions, and it's deeply tied into current politics - you could write an entire book on the subject (and many people have!)

One of the positive aspects of American individualism, though, is opportunity. For those that have the ambition and drive to achieve big things, the US rewards them better than pretty much anywhere. In the US, failure is generally seen as part of life's learning experience, rather than something to be ashamed of.

You can certainly find instances of collectivist behavior in communities around the country, though. In families, local neighborhoods, and religious communities, you'll find that 'nails that stick out get hammered down' - conformity to certain social norms is of paramount importance to maintain unity.

Like any civilized society, groups of people have to work together to cater for their best interests. There's governance at the federal, state and local level. There are various bureaucratic organizations dedicated to keeping the infrastructure of the country running for everyone. And there are community groups dedicated to solving the pressing issues affecting people that government establishments can't (or won't) tackle.

So the answer's complicated, but then again, so are people!

Is Japan a collectivist culture?

Japan is traditionally known as a collectivist culture, yes.

Family, history and dynasty play an important role in Japanese society, and hierarchical structures based on group unity and harmony are common in all social strata. Decision-making is usually done on the group level rather than by individuals, and non-conformity is rare (although it certainly does exist). The potential for individual accomplishment is there - whether that's in the arts, business, sport, or elsewhere - as long as certain social rituals are respected and adhered to.

Despite Japan being a world leader in lightning-fast technology, it can also be a frustratingly slow one when big decisions need to be made. In a culture where decisions are made collectively, moving fast isn't always possible, as shown by the cautious approach by the government in rolling out vaccines during the pandemic in 2021.

Patrick McKenzie, an American software entrepreneur who's lived in Japan for over a decade, shares some great insights in his blog Doing Business in Japan. It's a biased viewpoint of course, but in his eyes, startups are seen as unreasonably risky ventures and some (but not all) social structures are unreasonably bureaucratic. These quirks, of course, are a reasonable trade-off for working in a rich country that's brimming with talent.

One of the upsides to the Japanese collective style of working are much better job security (with terminations for poor performance being rare) and a good sense of loyalty and camaraderie between colleagues. Deals are often done after drinking, socialising and getting to know one another - rather than through the impersonal method of a sales call and a Powerpoint presentation.

The collective focus can lead to pressurized work environments, with unpaid overtime a regular occurrence and poor work-life balance. That said, the country does have a high number of public holidays allowing workers to relax and spend time with their families.

Is China a collectivist culture?

Broadly speaking, China is more collectivist than it is individualistic - but as with most examples, this isn't a definitive answer.

The world's most populous country can't be summed up in a few easy sentences, with its 1.4 billion people, each with their own opinions and motivations. But we can make some cultural observations based on the experiences that people have shared.

China's ruling party is the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and as such, a significant part of their government and economy is oriented towards collectivism. Certain traits such as prioritizing family and respecting history are also important to many citizens. Modern times have given rise to some individualism, particularly in younger generations who are better connected with the world through the internet, but overall the dominant culture is collectivist and is unlikely to change any time soon.

Companies from individualistic Western nations doing business with Chinese ones sometimes have to adjust their approach in order to overcome cultural differences, but the vast amount of trade China does with the rest of the world shows that it isn't too difficult - and in fact, we may have more in common than we think.

Measure and improve your company culture with our crazy-accurate culture map tool (used by world-class teams like Canva) — find out more here.

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