Article # 1
American innovation challenge: Embracing other cultures’ values to fight Covid-19
Can fiercely independent Americans learn from “collectivist” countries that have successfully slowed the spread of the coronavirus? Management consultant Jane Hyun argues that we may have no choice.
BY JANE HYUN
A few weeks ago, right before widespread lockdowns took effect, I attended a networking meeting where an individual said to me: “I’m a hugger, and if I get the virus, so be it. We’ll all eventually get it anyway!” This person proceeded to go around to greet–closely–various people in the room.
People are dying, hospitals are overflowing with infected patients, our economy has come to a standstill. A recent New York Times article highlighting the ways other countries had stopped the spread of the virus made me realize that we can miss the concept of cultural understanding that may help us think smarter about navigating this crisis. While the numbers show that the seemingly harsh measures used in South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Singapore to contain COVID-19 have worked to implement social distancing, the reality is that the individualistic, fiercely independent American public will not easily accept such measures.
How about we reframe this problem? Instead of dismissing these measures as “draconian,” why not seek to understand why they worked there and adjust the approaches to better fit our unique environment? Too often, we can miss the very presence of culture; it resides within each of us, influencing what behaviors we see as acceptable (or not), and what we consider right and wrong. As we sit here in North America, we don’t recognize the effect of culture until we compare ourselves to others or until it conflicts with an approach that has always worked for us.
Geert Hofstede, renowned social psychologist, measured the differences in individualism vs. collectivism across nations. The “hugger” approach is a prime example of American individualistic culture. It is expected that each individual act for him or herself, make their own choices, and that individual needs take precedence over the group’s. In South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and China, where the collectivist orientation is prevalent, preferences are given to the rights of the community, team, or organization and standing out is not encouraged; therefore decisions are made that take into account the best interests of the group. Employers (and institutions) take responsibility for their employees and recognition is given to groups and teams as a whole. In times of crisis where we need to move quickly to contain a pandemic, the collectivist orientation perspective has its benefits.
As an interculturalist I diagnose the gaps that teams and organizations have when doing business across cultures, and I work with leaders to find alternative solutions from two or more cultural perspectives. By naming and addressing these differences intentionally, we create more effective ways to work across differences. We as Americans need to think about our “default” operating ways, and how these responses may help or hurt us in times where we need to solve complex global problems.
Recently we worked with a U.S.-based consumer products company that had R&D centers in a few European countries, the U.S., and Asia. They had trouble meeting delivery deadlines due to cultural differences in the way the five offices worked together. Without addressing culture they continued to experience inefficiency and ultimately, loss of revenues due to delays.
Once we were able to equip the key leaders in the system with updated and more effective intercultural collaboration approaches that all sides could implement—the U.S. plant restructured way they “handed” off their deliverables to the other plants while the offices in East Asia made adjustments to how they communicated unexpected delays—their efficiency and productivity rose. Sometimes we have to pause, educate, and switch gears before we can speed up.
How can we adapt other cultures’ solutions to work within our own families, cities, and governments? In the case of stopping the spread of coronavirus, we don’t have the luxury of time. We must quickly identify solutions from the countries that have succeeded, and adapt them into our system using innovative approaches, so that more lives will be saved.
We can lead with an attitude of humility to learn from others and borrow lessons that can fit our American approach. Not every tactic will work in the U.S., but how do we take some of the learnings from the countries that have had the benefit of one to two months of experience to lessen the painful period that is looming ahead of us? We need to leverage what the other countries have done as we execute in the U.S.
To ignore the learnings from other countries altogether because we assume that culture doesn’t play a role would be a costly risk for us all . . . And to chalk it up to “that’s them and this is us” seems shortsighted.
The people in the small Mediterranean town of Sanary-sur-Mer in France have given up going outside to pick up their daily baguettes in the mornings, or risk a fine of 135 Euros. In a country where picking up a baguette from the boulangerie is a daily, almost necessary cultural practice, the sacrifice has become a gesture of solidarity for them. “It’s not a sacrifice. It’s an adaptation,” says the town’s Mayor Ferdinand Bernhard. Let’s make adaptation work for us, too.
Jane Hyun is a global leadership strategist and coauthor of Flex/the New Playbook for Managing Across Differences and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. She is based in New York City, where she is sheltering in place.
Article # 2
Cultural Psychology Research Suggests The U.S. May Be Less Individualistic After Coronavirus Pandemic
Mark Travers Contributor to Forbes Magazine
I write about the world of psychology and survey research.
While some people are comparing Coronavirus to the zombie apocalypse — or are preparing for a Z for Zachariah-like situation — most of us realize that life will go on after the pandemic has come and gone.
But that doesn’t mean things won’t change. Given the scale of the pandemic, it’s a near certainty that Coronavirus will produce significant and lasting societal changes. With science as a guide, here are two changes we might expect to see in the post-COVID-19 world.
#1: More conformity, less individualism
Research in cultural psychology suggests that societies with higher pathogen exposure are more likely to endorse societal “collectivism.” What is collectivism? It’s a set of beliefs and values that prioritizes group conformity and places a greater emphasis on societal traditions. “Individualism,” in contrast to collectivism, reflects the set of beliefs that encourages deviations from the status quo.
In general, research has found that Eastern cultures (China, Japan, etc.) are more likely to endorse collectivistic attitudes while Western cultures (the United States, Europe, etc.) are more likely to endorse individualistic attitudes.
Coronavirus may change all of that. According to a 2008 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the expression of collectivistic/individualistic attitudes varies as a function of pathogen risk. In other words, countries that have a higher disease prevalence tend to endorse more collectivistic attitudes.
The authors suggest that societal collectivism serves as a natural guard against disease transmission. They write, “Given that many specific traditions and norms (such as those pertaining to food preparation) can serve as buffers against pathogen transmission, deviance from the status quo may pose a contagion risk to self and others, whereas conformity helps to maintain the integrity of these ritualized buffers against disease.”
Many people in the United States have already started to feel the increased pressures of conformity. Social distancing has quickly become the new normal and people aren’t afraid to call out behaviors that don’t fall in line with the recommended policy. In other countries, pressures to conform to disease prevention efforts are even greater. France, for instance, has enacted a nationwide confinement order, with penalties of prison time for repeat breaches.
Historically, it has been equatorial countries that have experienced the highest degree of pathogen risk and were thus most likely to promote collectivistic attitudes. With Coronavirus spreading throughout the world, it is possible that collectivism will become less geographically constrained.
#2: A heightened fear of outsiders
Cultural psychology points out another consequence of Coronavirus: a rise in xenophobic attitudes. They write, “Collectivists make sharp distinctions between coalitional in-groups and out-groups, whereas among individualists the in-group/out-group distinction is typically weaker. A consequence is that collectivists are more wary of contact with foreigners and other out-group members. This xenophobic attitude can serve an effective anti-pathogen function by inhibiting exposure to novel pathogens.”
Again, this theme has been playing out in nations throughout the world. Donald Trump stoked the growing undercurrent of xenophobia by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” China fired back with its own set of anti-American conspiracy theories. Borders have been closing and many small town Americans have been vocal in telling out-of-towners to stay away. This us-versus-them mentality is likely to intensify as the disease continues to spread.
What to expect?
While there’s nothing intrinsically better, or worse, about individualism or collectivism — like any system of values, both have their merits and shortcomings — collectivism may increase its sway in the age of Coronavirus and beyond. The authors conclude, “While individualism may confer certain kinds of benefits upon individuals and the societies they create, the behaviors that define individualism may also enhance the likelihood of pathogen transmission, and thus may be functionally maladaptive under conditions in which pathogens are highly prevalent.”