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How Many I’s in Individualism?

The individualism index, or IDV, is the second of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory that we will overview.

The complete name of this dimension, Individualism vs. Collectivism, basically says it all.

It indexes how individuals of a given national culture value individual goals vs. group goals. However, taken lightly, this could be an oversimplification.

A higher value in this dimension indicates that a person feels more independent, which is entirely different from being self-centered, as the word individualist may suggest at first glance. On the other hand, collectivism does not mean “equality for all,” as the word collectivist may suggest; it indicates that a person feels like part of a larger whole.

Or, as Hofstede’s website defines it:

Individualism does not mean egoism. It means that individual choices and decisions are expected. Collectivism does not mean closeness. It means that one “knows one’s place” in life, which is determined socially. With a metaphor from physics, people in an individualistic society are more like atoms flying around in a gas while those in collectivist societies are more like atoms fixed in a crystal.

To better illustrate this dimension, I’ll ask you a question:

How do you feel about students copying answers in an exam?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Regardless of opinions, it is cheating; however, the social penalty is different. Here’s why: In an individualistic society, it is expected that people get their answers based on their effort and knowledge, and if someone else didn’t do the work, they don’t deserve the reward. In a collectivist society, it is expected that you will help your schoolmate if they need help, and someday, they will do the same for you. Ever wondered which applies to your national culture? You got your answer.

And, this is a good moment for the usual reminder: please consider these, like many other elements of a cultural intelligence report, as generalizations, and members of a given culture can have different degrees of compliance with the behaviors described for this and any other dimension.

The following graph compares IDVs for Canada, India, Mexico, and the USA.

Canada and the US have similar indexes; however, the US is one of the highest scores in the world for this dimension. In the business world, this translates into making it easy to close business with people they don’t know and easily approach strangers.

India scores right in the middle, indicating that they have both sides of the coin and work more or less like this: family, extended family, neighbors, coworkers, among other social groups, influence the behavior of the individuals, clearly a collectivist society. Relationships are key in work environments, for hires, and promotions.

The individualist part comes from the dominant religion, Hinduism, where each rebirth is dependent on the actions of the individuals in their previous lives. Every individual, and no one else, is responsible for their sequence of lives.

Mexico is decisively a collectivistic society. The commitment of the individuals is to their family, their extended family, or friendships, and loyalty is highly appreciated. In a group, all members take responsibility for each fellow member.

To put all of this in a practical example, an American manager would expect that their Mexican team members will point out someone who made a mistake; however, chances are the team will try to avoid pointing fingers and will be more willing to carry the consequences –or fix the issue– as a group.

Does this explain some “strange” behavior in your global team?

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