Lone Rangers and Tribes: An Individualist Working in a Collectivist Culture

Lone Rangers and Tribes by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo Solomon D. Butcher (1891-1892), Nebraska State Historical Society, [Digital ID, e.g., nbhips 12036], available at Library of Congress.

The Lone Ranger represents a deeply engrained Anglo-American value of rugged individualism. I think it is a great heritage to have and that it has contributed to the American success story. But it is not a very common perspective among the world’s cultures. In today’s global economy and diverse workplace, it is essential that you as a leader understand how individualist and collectivist cultures differ and how they can complement one another.

Individualist cultures tend to see connections between people as fluid; people look out for themselves and for their immediate family.

Many cultures, however, are collectivist at their core. These are societies in which people are integrated into strong cohesive groups. The groups provide protection to their members; but they also demand lifetime loyalty to the group.

Often, the primary group in such cultures is the extended family, but it can also be a political party or even a university cohort.

The intersection of these two perspectives on human relationships is one of the most common sources of conflict and confusion when an American leader is responsible for an international team.

We all struggle with these opposing needs: the need to belong and the need to be independent. The tension can be extreme for a member of a collectivist culture working in America. They often find themselves pulled both by the organization and also by the intense demands of their family. They feel they must be loyal to their primary group, yet they also want to belong to the larger multi-cultural organization.

In a collectivist culture, people not only consider it acceptable to provide preferential treatment to their friends and family, but they cannot conceive of a society so cold that people would let their friends down. To hire from within their own family is not only viewed as the morally correct thing to do, but it’s also viewed as good business practice because you can trust a friend or family member more than you can a stranger.

What we call nepotism, many employers in collectivist cultures consider a strategy that is less risky than hiring from outside (which, by the way, coincides with a pessimistic view of human nature).

For Americans, however, the individual takes precedence over the group. The United States has consistently scored highest in individualism versus collectivism when compared to other national cultures.

American business leaders on an international assignment are often surprised by the apparent time wasted in meaningless chitchat at the start of most business meetings. People from such cultures often spend thirty to forty minutes at the start of a meeting telling stories, sharing how the weekend barbecue went, or getting in a couple good jokes.

In every culture, some people will stand above their own group in significant ways because, even in a collectivist culture, there is the individual dimension. But there is a clear difference in perspective between these two kinds of culture.

American leaders on an international assignment need to learn patience and the art of mixing work with good fellowship.

What do you think? If you have experienced the effects of the individualism-collectivism tension, please share you story in the comments section below.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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