Identity is how we perceive ourselves in relationship to our family, associates, and friends. The individualist focuses on the personal. Such a typical Westerner might think about how they can “get ahead” of everyone else, “stand out from the crowd,” and show off their individual capabilities.
But the vast majority of cultures don’t prioritize the individual. Where the Westerner might think of “I,” someone from a collectivist culture would often think “We.” The group comes first, and is placed ahead of the individual. There is a core belief in the power of the group, and a corresponding feeling that individuals can only play a useful role in society through group involvement. Rather than stand out, the collectivist wants to be a part of the group and support common group goals. In this case, “standing out” is actually a bad thing.
Understanding this is absolutely essential to healthy team dynamics.
Why Identity Matters
Roy, a project manager in the United States, learned about identity the hard way. He had been overseeing work with a partner firm in Japan. The partner firm, responsible for tailoring Roy’s product to fit into Japanese culture, had done a great job. In particular, Roy felt that Masakuni, one of the product designers, had really done exceptional work. He wanted to reward the team, and he wanted to show everyone what a great job Masakuni had done.
As a reward, Roy called the team together to celebrate. He told everyone that the product redesign was a success, and he asked Masakuni to step forward. He told the team that because of Masakuni’s exceptional efforts, their U.S. employer was particularly happy. He went on to add that everyone would be receiving a bonus, but that Masakuni could expect “something extra” for all of his hard work.
Roy shook everyone’s hand. There were smiles all around and it seemed to Roy that he had done the right thing — until the next day. Masakuni did not come to work. Roy had an unexpected meeting on his calendar with the Japanese firm’s general manager. The general manager — fortunately, someone that was very multicultural, and who understood American culture — explained the problem. Masakuni had resigned because he had failed his coworkers. Roy’s congratulatory speech had in fact singled out Masakuni as someone that had not supported his own team. He had not shown them how to excel, just as he had. And by keeping that knowledge to himself, it was self serving: Masakuni had lost face with his group, and with his employer.
The Global Project Compass identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by identity:
- Team & Human Resources Management
- Training Needs Assessment
- Independent Verification & Validation
- Assessing Outcomes
Team & Human Resources Management
As Roy learned in the story above, team dynamics is complicated in a multicultural situation. How we motivate team members, how we communicate with them, and how we expect them to communicate with us is essential to good management. Without understanding the more subtle aspects of business culture, managing a team becomes impossible.
Training Needs Assessment
All employees expect to have opportunities for growth. But people in different cultures anticipate receiving these opportunities in varied ways. For example, in many collectivist cultures the boss is expected to look out for employees, and provide guidance regarding a career path. But individualists expect to take action on their own, let their boss know what they would like, and push for what they want. If you don’t understand the right approach, team members will soon be left wondering if there is a future for them at the firm.
Independent Verification & Validation
Independent expertise can be highly valued. But, trusting a third party to ensure the success of a product or service is rife with cultural implications. The individualist approach tends to favor unbiased service providers with a strong track record, and no connection to the firm. The collectivist approach tends to favor trusted, well-known partners with strong connections within the group. It’s a different point of view that can lead to internal conflict in multinational organizations.
When assessing outcomes, a skilled multicultural manager needs to understand the dynamics of the team. A manager accustomed to individualist teams will naturally look to identify high performers. The individualist team, while working to succeed as a group, will ultimately be motivated to achieving individual goals (such as career advancement). But the collectivist manager will instead assess the team as a whole, understanding that individual performance (whether strong or weak) is, in many regards, left to the group to manage.
Identity is core to a person’s view of self image. The strong individualist employee will look for validation of their abilities, performance, and self worth. The collectivist employee will instead perceive their value in terms of how their work benefits the social “in group,” including family and associates. Benefits and rewards must be appropriate. For example, offering a great opportunity at a new company may not be exciting to a group-oriented person. Such a change means leaving their “in group” behind. It might be viewed as a loss of face — whereas the individualist is more likely to see it a chance to excel.
Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.