Understanding International Business Culture: Using Collectivism to Your Advantage

Becky DeStigter | September 8, 2013 | Export Finance
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Understanding International Business Culture: Using Collectivism to Your AdvantageJoe is visiting his company's Japanese partner in Tokyo for the first time. He has been talking with his counterpart, Taro, at least once a week for six months ago. In Joe's opinion, Taro has done a great job supporting the company's Japanese clients.

At the beginning of the visit, Joe meets with the partner's key staff including Taro in a conference room. Joe wants to show his appreciation and build some goodwill, so he praises Taro's dedication and skills in front of his peers.

The mood in the room suddenly shifts. Taro seems visibly embarrassed. Everyone else looks uncomfortable too. What just happened?

As an American, Joe comes from a business culture where individual achievement is highly valued. The majority of business cultures around the world place a higher value on group membership and dynamics.

Dutch Anthropologist Geert Hofstede researched the cultural traits and trade-offs between individualism versus collectivism. Business cultures around the world fit somewhere on the line with various proportions of each trait.

The Americans are the individualistic culture in the world and the Japanese are the most collectivist. In Joe's situation, he singled out a group member. Regardless of whether it was for positive or negative recognition, Taro lost face in front of his team and the team shares his embarrassment. The Japanese have an expression for this: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

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The majority of the world's population lives and works in cultures that are more collectivist than individualistic. So as a Westerner working internationally, how can you not only adjust to work effectively with collectivist mindsets but use this cultural trait to your advantage?

Change I to We

The next time you find yourself in conversation with a key contact from Asia, Latin America, or Africa, try to be conscious of how much time you focus on talking about individuals versus the group. While it makes sense to inquire after your contact's health, it is also smart to ask about how their team is doing, too.

In the case of certain cultures that co-mingle work and private life, inquire about the health and well-being of their family as well. As you move forward in conversation, keep in mind the impact of potential decisions on other group members both in your organization and your counterpart's.

A crucial step beyond Your Team and My Team is to find ways to make it Our Team. In other words, you are looking for ways to create a joint sense of interdependence so that both sides are invested in the outcomes of your efforts. This builds the strong business ties to make your project or joint venture or client/vendor relationship successful.

Use Peer Pressure as a Disciplinary Tool

Since we can't single out an individual for punishment in front of their collectivist peers, how do we hold a person accountable for their actions? The answer is—we don't.

If someone on a Mexican assembly line is tasked with ensuring that the red units do not mix with the blue ones, then if they mix everyone knows whose fault it is. Instead of singling out the responsible party, it is better to gather the group and discuss the problem that was created in an indirect way.

"The unit colors were mixed up." Then discuss the impact of this problem. "Now the units must be separated." "Now our order to the client is delayed and they will be upset." Then make it the group's responsibility to fix the problem.

Even if left unspoken, the group's peer pressure will help to ensure greater work ethic moving forward, because no one wants to be known as the person who doesn't meet the group norms. By not singling out the irresponsible individual, you will gain respect among your collectivist peers and be more effective in your ongoing interactions.

For more information about international business and cross-cultural communications, I invite you to visit my website: The International Entrepreneur.

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