American Management Association
“I”-centric (individualistic) “We”-centric (collectivist)
Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
“I” or “We”
Achievement and harmony
The challenge of recognition
The paradox of focus introduces transnational leaders to the con-
trasts that exist between those raised in cultures that focus primarily
on the needs and interests of the individual—I-centric cultures—and
those raised in cultures that place primary emphasis on the collec-
tive needs of the group (family, work team, organization, society, etc.)
—we-centric cultures.
In strong “I-centric” cultures there is minimal group connection
and little sharing of responsibility beyond the family and perhaps a
very few close friends.
Individual focus predominates—my needs,
my expectations, my job, my schedule—and people value indepen-
dence in thought and action, recognition, and reward. In these cul-
tures individuals believe in their own sense of agency and self-
determination to make things happen and get results. To be suc-
cessful in an “I-centric” culture speaking up for yourself is necessary
and expected.
Alternatively, in “we-centric” cultures the focus is on group soli-
darity and responsibility for the well being of each other. People sub-
ordinate their personal needs and perspectives to the requirements
of the group, valuing belonging to the social network above the
need for self-expression. In we-centric cultures the emphasis is on
maintaining harmony and showing loyalty; in return for adhering
to group expectations individuals receive the security of group
If you were born and raised in the United States, Canada, En-
gland, Switzerland, Northern Europe, Germany, or Australia you
have been raised within cultural ideologies that foster an “I-centric”
view and experience of the world. As a member of an “I-centric”
culture you have been raised to be an individual contributor; it is
likely that you experience achievement as personal and as a measure
of your individual value. Driven to attain personal rather than group
goals people in individualistic cultures ensure that their voice is
heard, make their points directly, and stipulate what is necessary to
ensure success. It is not that people in these cultures don’t support
group success; it is just that reward structures since birth are tar-
geted to individual performance. Meritocracy is the expressed
norm, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be recognized
for what they do rather than for who they are or who they know.
While team success is valued, the primary focus, at work or in
sports, is on the performance of individuals, and rewards and recog-
nition target the individual contributor.
Conversely, for people reared in China, Egypt, Bahrain, India,
Japan, Korea, the ASEAN countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia,
Viet Nam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and
Brunei), Mexico, Central and South American countries, as well as
the majority of African countries the focus and emphasis are on be-
longing to the group. In we-centric cultures value is placed on the
48 Transnational Leadership Development
American Management Association
appearance of going-along and the importance of getting-along. To
maintain harmony and avoid open conflict communication is indi-
rect and deference is given to those in authority and those with sen-
iority. Group consensus is the preferred style for decisions, and in-
dividuals readily put aside personal views to align with the group’s
In group-based cultures success and failure are collective events
under the direction of the senior member of the group. Individual
performance is valued for ensuing the group’s success and overt per-
sonal recognition. Public recognition and reward are usually offered
to the group in its entirety; recognizing team success is done collec-
tively with group dinners serving the purpose of reinforcing the
family structure.
Building awareness of the paradox of focus is important to the
transnational leader. Whether the focus is on “I” or “we,” by ap-
propriately selecting the individual or collective approach of either
the surrounding culture or a specific member of the team, the leader
will be better able to frame desired outcomes, seek involvement, in-
fluence others, and recognize and reward achievement.
The paradox of focus has significant implications for working with
those from other cultures and doing business transnationally. Con-
sider Patricia and Rosnah’s effort to gain buy-in and commitment as
they work together to bolster the performance management pro-
gram of an American multinational organization with a significant
and growing presence in the ASEAN region.
3 • Paradox of Focus 49
American Management Association
Interaction between Patricia and Rosnah
Patricia was the New York-based Project Manager charged with creating a
global performance management system for a Fortune 100, American, multi-
national corporation. The organization was interested in being able to assess

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