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Edward Huang
Edward Huang

Posted on • Originally published at on

Understanding Why It's Hard To Be Opinionated

photo by Mika Baumeister

My manager wants me to voice my opinion and be more direct.

She said that direct people trigger innovation in the workplace.

I nodded.

It is hard to become more opinionated and direct. I felt like a fish out of water when I am at work.

However, I noticed that most, if not all, senior engineers are very opinionated. They speak loudly during meetings, and their opinions directly correlate to impact. My curiosity made me question why I felt uncomfortable being opinionated and direct.

I realized that these traits are deeply rooted in my Chinese culture. For instance, I am too afraid to "lose face." My parents have always taught me not to criticize someone in public because that will hurt the other individual's reputation. The concept of "losing face" is at the core of Chinese culture. When you “lose face,” your ability to function as part of the social order has been damaged. You have lost influence and damaged your reputation. Thus, criticizing a work colleague in China in front of other team members is unthinkable. Criticism is saved for private interactions and often delivered indirectly, such as through a third party.

The reason why it is very hard for me to be opinionated is that I was brought up in a collectivist environment. The two cultures differ not only in politics, societies, and governments. It is about intrinsic values, motivation, and how rewards and recognition are perceived. I further explore the difference between individualist and collectivist workplace cultures regarding reward, recognition, and values. I also discuss how innovation excels in an individualist workplace over a collectivist one.

Individualism vs. Collectivism in Workplace Culture

According to Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor, individualism evolved since the middle ages in the West when the Roman Catholic Church dissolved kinship institutions. It opened the door for Europeans to have families based on their own choices, such as their friends, spouses, and business partners, and resulted in more diverse dynamics. This contrasts with Chinese Confucianism teaching, where it is necessary to give up one's desires for the greater good of the group. In other words, people didn't exist independently of one another.

An individualist workplace culture, also known as organizational individualism, emphasizes the contributions and unique qualities of the individual. In such a culture, employees earn recognition for their personalities, qualifications, competencies, and specific contributions. People are encouraged to express their ideas by voicing their opinion and asking questions. You may feel like you’re in a battle royale in an individualistic workplace; everyone competes to advance and benefit their career.

One example of promoting individual achievement is PIP (performance improvement plan) and The Keeper Test, which many tech companies adopt. If you are in the bottom 10%, they will put you in the performance improvement plan. Therefore, employees take action to increase their contributions and recognition. They think a lot about how to make the right impression—how to frame their arguments in discussions with bosses, get their points across in meetings, and persuade or coerce their reports to do what they want. This action may sound selfish, but it has pushed the company to innovate.

On the contrary, a collectivist workplace emphasizes the need and accomplishments of the group rather than individual members. The primary focus is the greater good of the organization or the team. For instance, a project may have succeeded not because of the decisions of the Architect, but it’s the collectivist-minded manager and the entire team's responsibility for the achievement.

When everyone's looking out for each others' interests, that's a natural result. This trait can be desirable for many people if they value acceptance and belonging. Being a 'team player' is an advantage at this type of firm. Thus, a collectivist workplace culture can feel more like a team.

The result of feeling belonging in the workplace is loyalty. However, it also comes with unspoken rules and pressures, like staying late after your shift to finish projects during a busy season. You may be treated nicely when you can deliver great results, but when you don't do as well, you may become the target of gossip. For instance, my dad used to work for a Japanese company in Taiwan, and one of the stories he told me is that he often worked late, not because of work but because he had to attend his manager's social networking events. Most of his colleagues accompany his manager during social gatherings with clients, and business deals are often closed during dinner parties. Some colleagues who didn't show up at the social events have less chance of getting promoted because they are not seen as team players.

Rewards and Recognition

Individualist workplaces often highlight employee accomplishments.

My manager told me I needed to be a subject matter expert on certain systems to be promoted to the senior level. Such expectations are unlike project assignments, where only questions regarding System X will be directed to you. You must answer many questions from other teams and earn the trust to become the go-to person.

We have an internal Slack channel for Kudos.

"Kudos, Edward, for making System X easier to visualize with New Relic."

"Kudos, Alex, for helping help launch feature Y in Latam."

This is a great way to encourage people and also give others a reference on what a helpful achievement looks like.

Moreover, the company selects a leader who can influence and address opinions. Thus, many senior and staff-level engineers talk instead of listening during meetings. When writing a report, they may incorporate their unique authorial voice. A presentation may include embellishments that express the presenter's personality. Employees take action to increase individual contributions and recognition. They think a lot about how to make the right impression—how to frame their arguments in discussions with bosses, get their points across in meetings, and persuade or coerce their reports to do what they want.

A piece of advice from a mentor is to always document what you do and keep an impact log. Having an impact log helps showcase YOUR skills and abilities, which helps with promotions.

This causes employees to speak more and listen less, not building on other people's ideas but trying to sound authoritative to get ahead. When I present an idea to the team, many engineers will cut me off midway and ask questions like "Why did you choose X instead of Y?" instead of "Choosing feature X is great. Have you also thought about choosing Y?"

On the contrary, a collectivist workplace encourages rewards and recognition to the highest-performing team instead of individuals. A leader in a collectivist workplace will focus on shared success and expect their employees to respect the company's hierarchical structure by being loyal to the company and working as a team. Collaboration between people and selflessness is rewarded, and people tend to feel less isolated and alone.


Collectivist workplace cultures tend to have a hierarchical structure, whereas individualist cultures are more egalitarian.

Business relationships begin and end quickly in countries like the U.S. and Australia. Productivity depends on efficient procedures and achieving the goal. Consequently, they allow workers to spend more time alone to get the work done. They'll be more open to celebrating unique skill sets and distinctive personalities. On the other hand, there is a common saying across East Asian cultures: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Thus, there are more uniformity and supervision, as compliance and consensus are more important than radical initiative and self-expression. Innovation is possible in this environment but may involve a longer, more formal process, likely requiring senior management’s approval.

Working in Tech benefits more from individualism than collectivism. Why?

Tech Focus on Innovation

A company in the technology sector is likely to focus on innovation, in which case creativity, expressiveness, self-motivation, and initiative would be essential employee traits for success.

You need to be bold and apply first-principle thinking to be able to solve customer problems.

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Want to use your car to make extra money? Try Uber or Turo, the car rental service.

To solve customer problems, you must provide many ideas regardless of the team hierarchy.

An individualist workplace creates faster innovation by being able to generate more ideas. The study, conducted by the Canadian researcher Gad Saad from Concordia University, looked at the creative habits of employees from a collectivist society (Taiwan) and a more individualistic one (Canada). "We found that the individualists came up with many more ideas. They also uttered more negative statements, which were more strongly negative. The Canadian group also displayed greater overconfidence than their Taiwanese counterparts."

Bias Toward Action

On collectivist teams, you can fall into a trap where all decisions are to be made as a team.

This can prove detrimental to the overall team's success and efficiency. Some decisions in technology may be based on preferences and opinions. In this case, a consensus model is not the ideal way to make progress. The thing is, some decisions don't need to be made via consensus. Sometimes, we don't need to discuss everything and agree.

Building a product has too many unpredictable variables. Since we can't control how well the product will do, we should focus on the only variable we can control: the time input. Thus, the only way to make the feature better is to make incremental changes based on feedback instead of the waterfall approach.

Daniel Vassallo approaches his entrepreneurship journey with a small-bet approach. Instead of thinking through good quality ideas to launch the next billion-dollar SAAS company, he started aiming for much smaller, attainable goals. He placed "small bets" on various projects, starting with a book on using Amazon Web Services. His recent course, “Everyone can Build a Twitter Audience,” exploded with over 13K course sales. The idea is to advocate a "portfolio approach" to entrepreneurship. This approach requires trying different things and focusing on quantity to determine the right market fit before overthinking or going all-in.

The data-driven way of making decisions is to set metrics and goals and work backward to accomplish them. For instance, on the growth team, we have a north star that we want to achieve, and our roadmap is full of feature ideas that engineers need to implement. The goal is not to ship the perfect feature but to create features for product market fit. Thus, speed and velocity are important metrics for high-performing engineers. We will need to ship the feature as fast as possible to gather feedback from our target customers. Quantity is just as important as quality when finding product market fit.


In conclusion, individualist and collectivist workplace cultures differ beyond just societies and politics. It affects how employees perceive reward and recognition, motivation, and innovation. While individualist culture promotes individual achievement and recognition, collectivist culture emphasizes the need and accomplishments of the group. Both working styles have advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to each individual to decide which style fits them best.

My discomfort with being opinionated and direct in the workplace stems from my Chinese cultural upbringing. However, I need to adapt to the individualistic culture in my workplace if I want to succeed and contribute to innovation. By doing so, I can continue to grow personally and professionally and bridge the gap between different backgrounds in the workplace.

Ultimately, we need to be aware of cultural differences and how they affect our behavior in the workplace. By embracing diversity and learning from each other's cultures, we can create a more innovative and inclusive workplace environment that benefits everyone.

Do you have any tips for navigating work in an individualistic environment?

More resources about Collectivism vs. Individualism workplace

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I’m Edward. I started writing as a Software Engineer at Disney Streaming Service, trying to document my learnings as I step into a Senior role. I write about functional programming, Scala, distributed systems, and careers-development.

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