Is Your Culture Holistic, Monochronic or Collectivist?

What language do your employees speak?

Just how homogenous is your company? Chances are, not so very, anymore. In the global economy, more and more companies are doing business across national and cultural boundaries. It isn’t uncommon for a manager to have direct reports in other regions and countries—sometimes in more than one.

You could argue that the world has become a smaller place in many ways. Dress codes, tastes and even manners have become more portable and universal. It makes it easy to assume that people think and communicate in the same way that we do. But we really don’t.

It is these subtle differences in how we think and interpret that create hazardous water when it comes to faux pas, crossed wires and missed opportunities.

In his book Working Across Cultures, author John Hooker writes: “Cultures differ as radically as languages because they themselves are, in part, extended languages. The set of behaviors we call “language” is a subset of a larger set of meaningful behaviors that help to define a culture. A culture bestows meaning on all of its practices in the very same way that it gives meaning to words.”

So what are some of these “languages” and beliefs that make us different? Below are three ways that sociologists and psychologists parse out culture. Do you recognize some of them in your employees and global subcultures? Consider them carefully as you design your systems and communications in a way that meets the needs of your entire workforce:

Holistic vs. Specific Culture

When I was teaching writing at BU, I noted that my grad students from China and South Korea had a different approach to thinking and writing than those from the West. Rather than working outward from a thesis, they began with a seemingly disconnected set of observations, and only after thoroughly exploring the context, did they draw conclusions about it. This was in contrast to the writing style prevalent in the US, where we begin with a specific argument and use the rest of the paper to support it with facts. Psychologists tell us this is because Eastern cultures are more holistic in their orientation. According to studies, Eastern thinkers pay far more attention to the peripheral information and context than Western thinkers—who tend to focus more specifically on individual factors, independent of their environment.

A recent HBR article by Erin Meyer unpacks the East/West divide between holistic and specific thinking beautifully. Meyer offers this advice: “In a specific culture, people usually respond well to receiving very detailed and segmented information about what is expected of each of them. If you need to give instructions to a team member from this kind of culture, focus on what that person needs to accomplish and when. Conversely, if you need to motivate, manage, or persuade someone from a holistic culture, spend time explaining the big picture and how all the pieces slot together.”

Monochronic or Polychronic Culture

How we think about time is a lot more variable that you might think. Time perception (or Chronemics) actually plays a huge role in non-verbal communication. Here there is a North/South divide. If you come from the US, or Northern Europe, you come from a monochronic culture, where if you come from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and much of Asia, you live in a polychromic one. Monochronic cultures tend to do one thing at a time, adhere to an orderly schedule of some kind, and respect personal boundaries more emphatically. Polychronic cultures have a more fluid approach to time, often doing many things at once, being more comfortable with lateness and interruption, and focus more on people, family, and relationships than tasks and objectives.

 An example of a blended culture might be Hawaii, where residents are accustomed to specifying “Hawaiian time” or “Haole time”. According to the Wikipedia article, “’See you at two o’clock haole time,’ that means that they will see you at precisely two o’clock. But if you hear someone say, ‘I will be there at two o’clock Hawaiian time’ then the message has an entirely different meaning. This is because Hawaiian time is very lax and basically means ‘when I get there.’” Understanding these differences in time and tasks and priorities is critical to smooth communication.

Individualistic vs. Collectivist Culture

The final cultural dimension to consider involves whether the welfare of the individual or the welfare of the group is valued more in a society. In individualistic cultures, the goals of individuals are valued more highly than those of the entire team or organization, and workers tend to set individual goals and plans to achieve them. The United States, Canada and many Northern and Western European cultures are individualistic in orientation.

Collectivist societies tend, by contrast, to place the needs of the group paramount, and ties of work community and kin/family supercede those of the individual.  Asia, Africa and many Southern European and South American cultures tend to be more collectivist in their thinking.

Make sure in your communications and training you are taking into account the populations that fall into all of these types. And make sure that as you contextualize what recognition is for your employees, you are sensitive to these differences. This is critical, we find, to helping recognition to flourish across a global organization. You will save yourself a lot of grief and it will help you to build one single, more unified international corporate culture, if you know and respect these differences.

Tomorrow we will talk specifically about how you can apply these variables to recognition, and introduce a new blog series on recognizing across cultural borders.


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