Collectivism vs. Individualism in the Workplace

by Liz Gold - Updated June 27, 2018
Their dynamic approach is what distinguishes them from the rest.

There are many ways people relate to each other in the workplace, but two of the most common are from a collectivism and individualism perspective. Both ways of relating have a set of advantages and disadvantages. As a manager or owner of a company, it's important to identify these characteristics in your employees and strike a balance in order to create a harmonious and efficient workplace.

Understanding Collectivism and Individualism

Collectivism is focused on the well-being and greater good of the whole team or workplace. Individualism emphasizes the values and interests of a particular individual. Individualism can benefit a company and its workforce because those with an individualist perspective tend to be competitive and want to be the best at reaching their professional goals. Individualists are independent, driven and don't rely on others to succeed. They don't want to be micromanaged and can often be trusted to take on more responsibility than required.

Individualism turns problematic when an employee refuses or is resistant to working with other team members or sees coworkers as threats. When someone values individualism, they may exhibit selfish behavior, which, in turn, may create an unpleasant work environment. Collectivism, on the other hand, promotes loyalty of an individual towards the work group to which he belongs. In other words, the goals of the group are always ranked higher than any individual.

Bridge the Differences

Knowing how to capitalize on the advantages of collectivism and individualism in the workplace can be the difference between failure and success for a company. As an owner or manager, it's important to remember that how someone identifies is based almost entirely from their cultural background as well as their deep-seated belief structure.

Geert Hofstede, a social psychiatrist, discusses five dimensions of national cultures. One of them is whether a culture is more individualistic or collectivistic. Countries that are relatively more individualistic include the United States, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Some of the more collectivistic cultures are China, Costa Rica and Indonesia.

Not surprisingly, when people from various countries work in the same place of employment, misunderstandings can generate friction. Language issues aside, perhaps the most recognized difference is the amount of personal space people need to feel comfortable when they are in conversation. This can have implications for how people respond to their workplace, since it is a public space. People from more individualistic cultures, for example, are more likely to change a space to their liking or individual needs.

There is also a behaviorial difference between individualism and collectivism. While an individual exerts his or her own free will, focusing on their needs, rights and wishes, a person governed by collectivism principles follows a code of conduct and social obligations. That said, it's not unlikely that people within your company have characteristics of both individualism and collectivism. This is important when hiring new employees and putting together a team. Think about who works well together and why.

About the Author

Liz Gold has been published in a variety of capacities writing about everything from Kennebunkport and southern Maine municipal government, art and cultural events, to cloud technology and business transformation. Her experience extends to both corporate and freelance; she's a former Senior Editor at the B2B publication Accounting Today, writing about public accounting firms with a specialization in diversity, technology, best practices, and business development. During her tenure, she was also co-founder and editor of AccountingTomorrow, a blog focused on intergenerational workplace issues that is still thriving today. Most recently, Liz has been writing about accountants working in the cannabis industry on CPA Trendlines and reporting on cannabis trends for Southern Oregon Good Herb magazine in Oregon.

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