The Cross-Cultural Conflict of Individualism and Collectivism

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Table of Contents

  • High Context vs. Low Context
  • Gender
  • Leadership Styles
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

Culture has a significant influence on how we communicate and interact with the world and others. Consequently, lack of awareness and knowledge of other cultures in a working context can lead to breakdowns in cross-cultural communication which can have a significant impact on later working relationships. This essay will discuss cross-cultural communication issues faced in the case study by Sandra in her experiences working in the joint venture between Steele, Rhodes and Wayst (SRW) Ltd and the Malaysian engineering firm. Sandra made the move to Malaysia from New Zealand and subsequently encountered conflict within the Malaysian engineering firm stemming from cultural differences and subsequent lack of understanding. These cross-cultural communication issues will be discussed in terms of four aspects of culture that impacted Sandra, Bob Chee, and Sandra’s subordinates.

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First, how high context and low context communication styles stimulated conflict within the organisation will be discussed. Then how gender biases and stereotypes further stoked the conflict. Following this, there will be discussion surrounding how Sandra’s leadership style did not fit with the Malaysian engineering firm. Sandra’s individualistic tendencies clashing with the collectivist tendencies of the other staff members of the firm will then be discussed. Finally, based on what has been discussed, we will recommend solutions to the communication problems and conflict identified within the case study. In the end, positive working relationships can be formed through the minimisation of negative communication and the increasing of positive communication (Bakar, Mohamad, & Mustafa, 2007). Therefore, mutual understanding and cultural awareness can work to fix and resolve cross-cultural conflicts and encourage more positive inter-personal communication.

High Context vs. Low Context

Another cultural dimension that contributed to the cross-cultural conflict in the case is that of high context and low context. High and low context cultures can be differentiated in a number of ways including directness, use of non-verbal communication, and expression of emotions within a close relationship (Salleh, 2005). Malaysia is inclined to be a high context culture (Hofstede Insights, 2019) and so communication is more indirect with little in the explicit coded part of the message (Hall, 1997). Conversely, Sandra is from a low-context inclined culture (Hofstede Insights, 2019) and so communicates in a much more direct manner with the meaning being transmitted explicitly in the verbal message (Hall, 1997). This was a significant contributor to the conflict between Sandra and those working at the Malaysian engineering firm. Bob highlights to Andrew that he believes Sandra’s dealings with staff is too confrontational (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995), this is because Sandra is from a low-context inclined culture and so speaks explicitly and directly when communicating (Kim, Pan, & Park, 1998) which can appear demanding to those of a high-context inclined culture (Salleh, 2005).

Due to being a high-context inclined culture Malaysians also enjoy breaking the ice in business-related meetings by engaging in ‘social pleasantries’ (Abdullah, 1992). This can seem like wasting time for someone like Sandra who is used to getting into business right off the cuff, and it indeed was a source of frustration for Sandra who complained that “…meetings with clients who seem to go out of their way to be pedantic and obstructive.” (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). In addition to this, Sandra was frustrated that staff seemed polite in person but the opposite when they were gone (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). This is due to an high-context inclined cultures to be non-confrontational and avoid hurting relationships (Salleh, 2005), as well as this they are also inclined to be hesitant to engage in conversation until appropriate messages have been decided upon (Jandt, 2016). In addition, due to the indirect nature of high-context communication (Lustig & Koester, 2010), Sandra perhaps may have misinterpreted something one of her subordinates communicated to her, therefore causing her to distrust them. In the end, lack of cultural understanding, awareness, and specifically the high-context inclined nature of communication among Malaysians sowed conflict between Sarah and her subordinates as well as with Bob Chee. Conversely, the same lack of understanding surround the low-context inclined nature of communication of Sarah left her subordinates feeling frustrated and offended.


Across the world, gender discrepancies are rife. Women are often boiled down to stereotypes and societal expectations. In the workplace, differences between males and females are commonplace (Idris, 2011). And in Malaysia it is no different – women make up around 30% of the total workforce in Malaysia with the large majority working in low-skill and/or low-wage jobs (Ministry of Women and Family Development, 2003). This means there is a significant lack of representation of women in upper-management positions throughout Malaysia (Ministry of Women and Family Development, 2003). Subsequently, gender stereotypes are formed and women that don’t conform to these expectations are negatively impacted (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009). For Sandra, entering the Malaysian engineering firm it was no different especially considering she utilised an autocratic and assertive leadership style. Bob explained that Sandra was too forward for a woman which was a subsequent contributing factor to the loss of client (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995).

Sandra acting in this manner is seen as “…violating expectations about appropriate behaviour for women” (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009) which subsequently contributed to the loss of client on account of the client’s own pre-conceived notions and expectations of what a woman should be. In addition to this, Sandra’s subordinates pre-conceived notions of women dampers their relationship as she feels they ignore her instructions and treat her ‘like a kid’ (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). Unfortunately, this is commonplace for women in managerial positions, wherein others lack trust and belief in their ability (Idris, 2011). In addition to this, male superiors are less inclined to believe their female subordinate to be competent which subsequently negatively affects their working relationship (Abidin, Rashid, & Jusoff, 2009). This dampened relationship is evident from the beginning for Sandra, wherein she feels completely unsupported by Bob (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995) who as her superior, should work to support her and help solve issues she is experiencing. As well as this, women often have to work harder than their male counterparts in order to gain the same amount of recognition (Abidin, Rashid, & Jusoff, 2009). Subsequently, this puts enormous pressure on Sandra and consequently she feels she is struggling to overcome stereotypes and prejudices laid on her by others at the Malaysian engineering firm (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). Both conscious and subconscious biases have a significant impact on women in a working context and consequently it can be difficult to challenge and change these pre-held beliefs.

Leadership Styles

When Sandra arrived at the Malaysian engineering firm, she employed an autocratic leadership style which subsequently clashed with the culture within the firm. An autocratic leadership style means that the leader is very direct, strict, and uses power to push others to submit to instruction (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009). Sandra’s autocratic leadership style is evident in how she implemented policies on her own accord as well as implementing policies which staff saw no use of (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). While in the past, this leadership style was commonly used throughout Malaysia, now, it is no longer common (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009). This is in part due to Malaysia’s growing economy (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009) and subsequent better education of its citizens (Rani, Pa’wan, Musa, Tajudin, & Rani, 2008).

Because of these economic and educational improvements, many Malaysians now feel confident enough that they are able to do their job independently from a supervisors’ watchful eyes (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009). Use of this leadership lifestyle no longer fits the Malaysian culture and subsequently created conflict between Sandra and her subordinates as well as between Sandra and Bob Chee. When Sandra attempted to implement goals and objectives for staff, she felt unsupported by Bob, while Bob conversely saw no need for these implementations (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). Nowadays, managers need to practice a ‘participative’ and/or ‘nurturant-task’ leadership style in order to effectively manage staff without added feelings of resentment and/or conflict (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009). To conclude, Sandra’s leadership style was inappropriate for the Malaysian engineering firm and subsequently contributed to the conflict within the case study.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

This paragraph will discuss individualism and collectivism and how differences between the two served as a source of conflict between Sandra and the other employees at the Malaysian engineering firm. Individualism is defined as cultures that hold more significance to the self and members of these societies are expected to look after themselves (Hofstede, Minkov, & Hofstede, 2010). Conversely, collectivist cultures place significant value on interpersonal relationships – holding a ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’ mantra (Hofstede, Minkov, & Hofstede, 2010). Malaysian culture tends to be inclined to be collectivist while New Zealand culture is inclined to be individualistic (Hofstede Insights, 2019).

These respective cultural dimensions can have a significant impact on how business is conducted within the relative cultures. Lack of understanding of these differences sowed mistrust and dissatisfaction for both Sandra and her subordinates when she began working at the Malaysian engineering firm. As a collectivist-oriented culture, Malaysian employees will be more inclined to “…prefer to function as a group and be part of the decision making process” (Jayasingam & Cheng, 2009). Collectivist-inclined cultures employees of an organisation are more inclined to work together in order to achieve organisational goals (Noordin & Jusoff, 2010). In Sandra’s work as a manager, the Malaysian staff members were disgruntled that she never consulted with them about anything and how she also implemented new policies on her own accord which staff saw little value in (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). Here, she did not seek to involve the collective group which was a source of dissatisfaction for staff members and alienated her subordinates. Due to the strong interpersonal ties emphasised within collectivist cultures, Malaysians personal relationships (familial, friendship, etc.) have strong influence on hiring practices within organizations which can lead to nepotism (Advameg, Inc., 2019).

In terms of the case, this led to many family members of Bob Chee being hired throughout the Malaysian engineering firm – for example, Sandra’s personal assistant was Bob Chee’s nephew (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995). This subsequently disgruntled Sarah who is from an individualist-inclined culture where such nepotism is generally avoided (Kyriacou, 2015). To conclude, the individualistic inclination of Sandra and lack of knowledge around the collectivist-inclined nature of the Malaysian culture (and vice-versa) contributed significantly to the cross-cultural conflicts experienced by both sides.


This conflict should not discourage future international endeavours for Andrew and Trevor. Diversity within the workplace encourages innovation, brings different ideas and perspectives, and increases profits (Martic, 2018). Therefore, they should seek to resolve this conflict immediately and implement ways to prevent such conflict in the future. At present, they can implement a cross-cultural training program for Sandra, Bob, and her subordinates to attend and learn from. This is because it is imperative that both sides within this conflict further awareness and understanding of the others’ culture in order to foster acceptance and therefore resolution (Liu, Volcic, & Gallois, 2014). In addition, Sandra needs to understand and be aware of the Malaysian culture in order to better avoid future cross-cultural conflict (Noordin & Jusoff, 2010). Cross-cultural training has been shown to improve knowledge and awareness of other cultures (Kealey & Protheroe, 1996) as well as being more effective when one has spent more time in a new culture (Hou, Fan, Tan, Hua, & Valdez, 2018). Therefore, this is an opportune time to implement a cross-cultural training program for the employees of the Malaysian engineering firm.

In future, Andrew and Trevor can also implement policies which will prevent future conflicts. For instance, they can give transferring employees a longer period of time to prepare for the new culture they will be entering – Sandra had two weeks to train her replacement in Wellington and make a life-changing move to Malaysia (Rigby, Shilton, Wallace, Gatenby, & Jones, 1995) which was not enough time. Finally, Trevor and Andrew need to ensure their human resources systems in-place are comprehensive and adaptable to differing cultures, this is because an increasing culturally diverse country means an increase need for such systems (Noordin & Jusoff, 2010). Implementing such changes would make the company’s employees feel more supported and further deepen inter-personal relationships among employees which would subsequently have a positive impact on the firm.


In the end, conflict is impossible to avoid. However, furthering awareness of cultural differences deepens cross-cultural understanding and has net-positive impacts on an organisation (Liu, Volcic, & Gallois, 2014). The story of the Malaysian engineering firm is one of many and highlights this need for deepened cross-cultural understanding. Many factors contributed to the conflict experienced between Sandra and Bob, as well as between Sandra and her subordinates. These cultural conflicts included high-context and low-context communication, gender stereotyping, leadership styles, and finally individualistic and collectivist cultural differences.

Subsequently, implementing a cross-cultural training program can aid in alleviating this conflict as well as implementing changes to prevent future conflict such as longer staff transfer periods and a more robust human resources system. To conclude, culture is incredibly significant in moulding and defining our sense of self and identity, however cross-cultural communication conflicts arise due to lack of understanding and awareness between individuals. Seeking to understand these differences ensures that cross-cultural interpersonal relationships can be strengthened and subsequent co-operative working outcomes can be more positive.

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