Culture’s Consequences (Part 3): Individualism

Posted: November 17, 2012 in Ethical decision-making
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Concert Crowd (Osheaga 2009) - 30000 waiting f...

Concert Crowd (Osheaga 2009) – 30000 waiting for Coldplay (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

Continues from this post.

Association and collective bargaining are both strongly collectivist values … or are they?

Hofstede’s third index of cultural value variance is individualism-collectivism (IDV).

His research found that nations where individualism is rated highly tended to be those:

  • With a low Power Distance Index (except for Latin America, where both are low),
  • With higher GNP per capita, and
  • Located in higher latitudes

Survey respondents in these countries (1) valued their personal time, (2) made a calculative involvement with their company and (3) prefer decisions made by individuals.

Those in low IDV countries (1) valued company-provided amenities, (2) made a moral involvement with their company and (3) prefer decisions made by groups. Unsurprisingly countries with a strong Chinese/Confucian influence were low IDV.

One interesting observation he makes is that modernisation tends to take countries on a trajectory from collectivism to individualism (for art buffs: this is a central theme of Wagner’s Ring cycle, written in nineteenth century Germany). However as they move from a modern to a post-modern state, the trend seems to reverse and they become more collectivist. He cites other authors who have noted the emergence of “a new type of collectivist who takes his bearings from his peer group and the mass media” (p. 152) (see also my last post). How prescient! This is in a book written before the Internet – even before MTV. Once again The Life of Brian said it best:

Crowd: “We are all individuals!”

Indeed.

Hofstede then uses this concept to explain the gradual shift that occurs when organisational practices are out of alignment with local values:

More collectivist societies call for greater emotional dependence of members on their organisations; in a society in equilibrium, the organisations should in return assume a broad responsibility for their members. Whenever organisations cease to do that – as in the incipient capitalism in nineteenth-century Europe, and today in many less-developed countries – there is disharmony between people’s values and the social order; this will lead to either a shift in values toward more individualism, or pressure toward a different, more collectivist social order […] or both. (p. 152)

Those few lines neatly explain why labour-management relations are often so antagonistic.

This might seem surprising but I believe Hofstede’s research implies that nations with a strong preference for individualism can still have strong unions. He describes “moral” collective activity and “calculative” collective activity (p. 153). In the latter situation, an aggregation of individualist values can produce the same outcome (the concept of the Union Wage Premium for example).

What this confirms is that collectivist values are not necessary to obtain collective benefits. There’s no escaping the rule that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. As long as organisations diminish their responsibility towards their workforce, formal or informal, there is going to be a counteracting response.

Finally Hofstede also notes that most of the literature on organisational behaviour comes out of the United States, which globally speaking exhibits extreme individualism. The preference is so strong that American writers will tend to speak of collectivism as ‘bad’, putting themselves at odds with much of the rest of the world.

Next up: The Masculinity Index.

Further reading:

  • Peetz, D (2006) Brave New Workplace: How Individual Contracts are Changing our Jobs, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, especially pp. 23-47
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  1. marksolock says:

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