Were you raised to be autonomous or to be loyal?


I was stuck in the usual rush hour traffic that we all experience in Bangkok when I asked myself “why not put on a podcast instead of my usual Spotify playlist?” One of my go-to’s is Adam Grant’s work life podcast; he’s an organisational psychologist and current professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He covers a range of topics from ‘How to trust people you don’t like’ to ‘Authenticity is a Double-edged sword’ with accompanying statistics from journals, which as a science nerd, I really enjoy. In this particular episode, he covers the topic of ‘Relationships at Work’ with Esther Perel who is a psychotherapist and also has her own podcast ‘How’s Work’. In her episodes she explores a variety of topics on modern relationships, and as a therapist for couples herself, she has a lot to share with her listeners.


“Were you raised to be autonomous or to be loyal?” Esther asks Adam and, subsequently, asks the live audience the same question. She adds on the following definitions:

Autonomous: you were raised to think that you only have yourself to rely on and no one can help you in the same way that you can help yourself

Loyalty: you believe you are never alone and you fundamentally understand that you need to rely on other people and are unafraid to ask anyone for help.

She qualifies it by saying “it does not mean you’ve stayed this way, it just means you were brought up with this kind of mentality.” What’s particularly intriguing is her follow up question to those who raised their hands for loyalty. She asks “how many of you are not American-born?” and the majority of those people kept their hands up. This sparked an interesting thought on how different cultures cultivate such vastly different social attitudes — an individualistic mindset i.e. autonomous or a collectivistic one i.e loyal. How does this then translate into the workplace and/or their attitudes towards the societies in which they live? I might then ask you this question, if you personally identify yourself as either autonomous or loyal, how do you think this played a part in your professional and societal relationships?

I’d like to explore these two angles further, starting off with how this manifests in the workplace and in professional working relationships. One of the leading researchers in this area was Professor Geert Hofstede who conducted a comprehensive study on culture and its influence in the workplace. He defined 5 cultural dimensions and one of which was individualism v.s. collectivism. So how do these behaviors present themselves in the workplace?

Throughout my time working in the corporate world, I have met my fair share of individualists and collectivists. Perhaps individualists are those senior team members who prefer doing work on their own because they believe that they are the only one with sufficient knowledge to complete the task at hand. It is difficult to earn trust from them as they are constantly worried that their team cannot complete the task to the same standard as they would have. If they have ultimate responsibility over the task, they will not let this happen. But it is these individuals that I notice people always going to for help; to be their SME and to impart their knowledge, because over their professional careers they have been able to build up depth in their knowledge.

Perhaps collectivists are those who constantly have the same people around them because they have built up good working relationships and their teams want to continue learning from them. They have goals that are generally orientated to achieving benefit for the greatest number of people, not just themselves. They enjoy helping others and are consistently motivated by this. It is these people that I find are able to build this ‘family’ at work which, oftentimes, can make it hard for them to separate work and life and to know when to stop working.

A year ago, I took this personal development course that was aimed at giving us advice on how to become ‘better’ leaders and to also discover what kind of leaders that we wanted to be in the future. We will come across many types of people in our working lives, and we will take little bits of each of these people we work with to craft the kind of person we want to be at work. And as a leader, it is also our responsibility to be able to lead all kinds of people and to mold our leadership abilities to our teams.

Organisations have consequently tried to strike a key balance between the cultivation of collectivism and individualism at the workplace. This will help ensure that individuals are rewarded and recognised for the unique value that they bring to the organisation whilst also creating an environment where employees are encouraged innovate.

Individualism vs Collectivism in a Pandemic

Hofstede completed a study on collectivism and individualism across the world and came up with a heat map. This gives a view of collectivism being more favored in East Asian countries and individualism favored more in western countries. I’ve lived in 4 countries now, Hong Kong, Thailand, UK and Australia, and have been able to experience how these disparate societies function and how people within these societies go about this thing called ‘life’. Having experienced both working and studying life in these countries, I have learnt a lot through the people I have met and the experiences that I have lived through. I’ve also come to notice how society influences our thinking and subsequently our actions. It is this that has influenced our responses to this pandemic we are currently living through.

Heat Map

In his recent paper on ‘Cultural orientation, power, belief in conspiracy theories, and intentions to reduce the spread of COVID‐19,’ Biddlestone suggested that perhaps it is not only government directives that have an influence on how countries have responded to this pandemic, but also social psychological factors too (Van Bavel et al., 2020) i.e. is the community as a whole more inclined to working and living for the greater whole of society or are they doing what is best for themselves and their families? According to a 2008 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the expression of collectivistic and individualistic attitudes is correlated to pathogen risk. In other words, countries that have a higher disease prevalence tend to become more collectivist societies.

We have all seen the differences in the ways each country has responded to COVID and it is not always the government directives that are to blame for countries’ inability to contain the virus. It is also down to how we as citizens consume the guidance and make decisions for ourselves as to how we should go about life whilst protecting ourselves and others.

So I’ll ask you the following: would you consider yourself to be raised to be autonomous or loyal? And have you seen this translate to your work, to the friends you have, or to the people that you know? How do you treat society as a whole? Has this been influenced by where you have lived? Where you have grown up? And who you choose to surround yourself by? And how has that impacted how you have responded as a member of society to the pandemic disrupting the world at present? And how often have you challenged your own attitudes?

Written by: Michelle Tan

Michelle is a third culture kid (‘TCK’) who has studied and worked in Hong Kong, Bangkok, London and Sydney. She is currently exploring the Digital Banking world as a Big4 consultant. In her spare time, she enjoys sharing her joy of baking and cooking on her blog and youtube channel.

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