Paradoxes in Vietnam and America: "Lessons Earned" -- Part II

Article excerpt

In the previous issue of Human Resource Planning, we indicated that all cultures and countries have their own set of inconsistencies or paradoxes. We rarely identify them in our own cultures but instead see them as something that "others have." Our discussion began with Paradox 1: When losing face is not. In this issue, we continue to illustrate such paradoxes and how employees who work abroad and their organizations can use these inconsistencies as a way to better understand and work within an environment that is not their own.

During this project, we've wrestled to understand our views regarding some of the "paradoxes" we found in each other's country. For this reason, we call these ideas "lessons earned," rather than simply "lessons learned."

Paradox 2: Good Collectivism Does Not Breed Good Teams

Research and consulting on cultures often references work in the 1980s by Hofstede, who studied IBM in many countries and identified several cultural "dimensions" he claimed reflected differences in the values and behaviors people hold. One dimension was the extent to which a culture is "collectivist or individualistic" -- are people more comfortable in groups or on their own; do they seek rewards that single out individuals or promote and strengthen group efforts?

Many researchers and managers who study and work in Asia note that the "group" is important to the way people work and live. Offices are structured as "open," with everyone working publicly, rather than in private, closed-door settings. People in a country like Vietnam live publicly often in houses that open onto the street. Further, people assume often that "collective societies" with communist structures or systems will also mean groups are the primary focus for work environments. In addition, many people assume that "groups" or "collectivism" equates to "teams." Not so.

In fact, when Americans and Vietnamese talk about teams and team building, they mean different things. Americans expect "collective societies" to mean "teams of people working toward a common goal." To Vietnamese, it means living and working together but not necessarily toward some goal. If it is used in relation to a "goal," that goal is typically vague, with little clarity about how to achieve it or what each person, team, or group must do. In Vietnam, people talked about "the collective" in the past, particularly during wartime. The focus was on sacrificing one's needs to achieve common goals, to cooperate collectively; however, for many, there was no clear sense of a "common goal" and thus people became disillusioned and less focused. When there was a goal, the focus was on following direction from a "leader" rather than acting as a "team," in the western sense, where each person believed in, understood, and worked jointly with initiative to achieve the common goal.

On the other hand, being part of a group does not prevent people from trying to reach high individual goals. In fact, there has always been a desire to "be Number 1," and if someone achieves that, the group (village, work unit) would support that person and feel positive towards him or her. Again, Vietnamese stress that these behaviors and ways of thinking do not instill team thinking or acting.

To some extent, the current generation may experience a "backlash" toward the idea of the collective. Rather than "sacrificing for the common goal," there is increasingly a sense of "looking out for Number 1" because of its benefits, not just honor to the group. As the market economy gains steam, some people take advantage of an earlier system that urged cooperation and instead focus on the idea that some will win and some will lose. They increasingly pursue their own goals, further melting the idea of knowing what a "team" would be.

Foreign managers who come to Vietnam expecting an Asian culture that has "collectivism" or importance of the group as a fundamental value will be baffled. …