Individual Culture and the Workplace


There are six levels of culture at play in any working environment – national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Many organizational leaders seeking to create synergies and increase collaboration among their employees and partners only focus on the national level. However, it is through the individual level of culture that a person experiences the world and develops their own personal values and behavioral norms. A person’s individual culture not only affects themselves, their friends and family, but also those they work with. It is for this reason that it is important for a person to become familiar with their personal cultural orientations – through the Cultural Orientations Indicator (COI) – so that they can become aware of how those orientations affect their work-style preferences. This way they can learn to collaborate with others who have different orientations.  

A person’s individual culture is the result of numerous aspects of their life: their upbringing, where they grew up, their religious background, their personal genetics, etc. And while a nation’s culture reflects what is expected, reinforced or rewarded by most people in that country – for example, valuing independence, human rights and personal freedom – a person’s individual culture reflects their own personal values, how they prefer to act, and how they like to treat others and be treated. And just as a nation’s culture can change over time – history and socio-economic changes favor certain behaviors and ideals over others – a person’s individual culture is fluid, too. For instance, a person who prefers indirect and formal communication could move to another country in which people communicate in a more direct and informal way. Over time, this person could see the value in this way of speaking and adopt it as a personal preference. Conversely, a person could feel pressured to change a personal cultural preference because those around them – their compatriots, family members or teammates at work – have a different preference. For example, a person who has a very strong fluid time preference could experience the irritation of their friends, family and colleagues, who expect them show up on time when instead they are always late. This person needs to adapt their individual behavior to suit the general orientations of those around them.

Individuals can gain awareness of their cultural orientations by taking their COI, an assessment that measures their personal cultural preferences and degree of strength.

In the complex multicultural contexts in which we increasingly find ourselves, we are faced with important choices about our way of doing things and of looking at others. As a result, we are required to become increasingly conscious of our individual cultural norms and our role in perpetuating them, as well as of our capacity to change them.

When we are able to do the above, we are equipped to optimize our own effectiveness and gain the ability to work with people who have different cultural orientations – on any level of culture.