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Can an Individualistic Culture Respond Effectively to a Collective Crisis?

In a classic business book, Riding the Waves of Culture, Fons Trompenaars describes the difference between individualist and collective orientations this way:

“Two people were discussing ways in which individuals could improve the quality of life.

  1. One said: It is obvious that if individuals have as much freedom as possible and the maximum opportunity to develop themselves, the quality of their lives will improve as a result.
  2. The other said: If individuals are continuously taking care of their fellow human beings, the quality of life will improve for everyone, even if it obstructs individual freedom and individual development.”

Rating countries around the world along the continuum between these two poles, it is not surprising that the US and Australia are among the most individualistic and South Korea and Taiwan are among the most collectivistic.

Enter COVID-19. The scientists tell us that the most effective way to control the spread is if we all minimize social contact. That means everyone must collectively distance for the greater good. We can’t be selfish or go it alone or not consider the consequences of our own behavior on the well-being of others.

Hardly the American way and we may soon be paying with our lives. Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan have kept the numbers of infections and deaths lower.

It begs the question: will Americans come together collectively to save lives or is it just not in our DNA? We worry about this.

Most of us are members of small teams at work. That microcosm offers a diagnostic view to our question. How many times has your team agreed to walk out of the room and all deliver the same message or take the same action? How many times did 100% of the members follow through as planned? When debating different points of view to solve a big problem, how easy was it to speak freely and arrive at the very best collaborative solution? How hard was it for you or other members to tuck away your own egos or desires for the good of the group?

I rest my case. Maybe we should look to Australia’s recent fire devastation to see how they pulled together despite their individualistic tendencies.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how to persuade Americans (and other individualistic nations) that this moment calls for us to go against our nature. What is the key to unlocking our shared responsibility to each other?



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