New Zealand Law Society - Embracing Diversity

Embracing Diversity

Embracing Diversity

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Part 6 – Culture and decision-making – Individualism versus Collectivism

The final issue we will consider in our study of diversity is this big picture question: does culture matter in our decision-making regarding conflict?

It seems reasonable to assume that the cognitive processes that inform our decision-making are universal and we would all approach conflict in the same way. We are all humans with the same basic needs (Abraham Maslow).

However, the society we live in may affect our decision-making. Traditionally, we view societies as being either individualistic or collectivist. A simple way to assess this is to ask whether the individual’s life belongs to him, or to the group, the community, society or the state.

Individualism is based on the premise that the individual’s life belongs to her and that she has an inalienable right to live it as she sees fit, to act on her own judgement to keep and use the product of her efforts and to pursue the values of her choosing. Common traits include self-reliance and competitiveness. Individualists see themselves as independent and hold loose connections to groups. Where their goals conflict with the group they will prioritise self-interest.

On the other hand, collectivism is based on the idea that the individual’s life belongs not to her but to the group or society of which she is merely a part, that she has no rights, and that she must sacrifice her values and goals for the group’s greater good. Interdependence, group harmony and solidarity are important. Collaboration and cooperation are common traits. A collectivist will typically conform to the wishes of the group when there is a conflict between individual interests and group norms.


We all manifest characteristics of both systems. Socialisation and demographic factors determine whether we exhibit one more than the other. We tend to become more collectivist as we age. The rich are more individualist than the poor, and woman typically more collectivist than men. Context plays a role: collectivists are harmonious and collaborative with their in-groups but may adopt a competitive attitude with out-groups. Individualists may compete in business but be respectful outside that environment.

Like people, countries and regions contain aspects of both but most have a dominant culture. New Zealand is predominantly an individualist society as is the United States, Canada and Australia. However, generalisations can be dangerous and New Zealand’s immigration demographics are changing quite quickly.

A society’s approach to conflict extends to its approach to mediation. Individualists view conflict as a natural part of human interaction. However, for a collectivist society, conflict involving relationships is negative and to be avoided. With an increased representation of people from collectivist societies (predominantly Asia), New Zealand needs to reconsider what its social norms are and how best to integrate both viewpoints into dispute resolution processes – especially mediation.

Where mediation comes in

Going to mediation is more palatable for an individualist because acknowledging conflict and engaging in dispute resolution does not cause shame. It may be stressful and raise other negative emotions, but shame is probably not one of them. A collectivist may refuse to mediate (even if ordered to do so) because of the shame involved at having failed to maintain harmonious relationships. Resistance will be high where the parties are members of the same in-group or where maintenance of the relationship is vital. Mediating with an out-group may not be as stressful.

The cultural norms of the parties may influence the selection of the mediator. An individualist will want a professional mediator skilled in process. A collectivist may want an insider who either knows the parties or the context of the dispute. A collectivist may prefer an evaluative mediator who – if an insider – may suggest resolutions that will restore harmony to the parties.

Decisions around who should participate in the mediation process can also vary. For individualist societies the parties are those directly involved in the dispute. Collectivists may want a wider group of people from, or respected representatives of, a particular in-group to also participate in the mediation.

The degree of formality and the structure of the dispute resolution processes can change between societies. A typical one-day mediation in New Zealand would begin with the mediator and the parties in the same room, sat around the same table in a joint session. Direct communication between the parties is encouraged. This might not work for collectivists who may find the directness of a joint session uncomfortable or even humiliating. Private meetings and shuttle diplomacy might be a better strategy.

Negotiation styles will vary. An individualist may be completely comfortable with a standard one-day mediation process that follows the familiar path of opening statements, identification of issues, the generation of options and then negotiation over settlement possibilities. A collectivist may be more indirect and relationship focused. For them the mediation may need to start by focusing on the relationship and building trust before examining interests and options. When the parties represent both styles there is a risk that they will misunderstand each other. The directness of an individualist may be confronting while a collectivist’s desire to establish trust first may be seen as delaying. Individuals make autonomous decisions while collectivist societies adopt a more consensus-based model.


Individualists and collectivists have different views about their relationships with others. Their approach to conflict resolution is therefore different and not just a product of universal cognitive processes. There is a real risk that if the dispute resolution process is predominantly individualistic or collectivist, parties with the opposing approach will feel alienated, misunderstood and aggrieved.

We need to increase our awareness of the cultural assumptions we make when we are from a particular society, especially when we are increasingly engaging with people who have a different outlook. Dispute resolution models need to be adjusted so they do not themselves become barriers to resolution.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to life and the world’s problems. The approach of the members of a particular society to conflict will always vary depending on the value they place on issues of interest and dominant cultural characteristics. Close examination of these factors in a given society will indicate how its members are likely to respond to conflict in general. Given the growing interconnectedness of societies today, such knowledge might help to develop more effective strategies for conflict prevention and resolution.

Paul Sills is an Auckland barrister and mediator. He specialises in commercial and civil litigation and is a Mediation Panel member of AMINZ. This is the fifth in a series of articles on embracing diversity. Read Part OnePart Two, Part ThreePart Four, and Part Five.

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