Our society is slowly coming to the realization that everything is connected and interdependent. Crises are occurring more frequently – from bank crashes to droughts and hurricanes – prompting individuals, corporations and governments to consider how actions ripple outwards to create unintentional effects.
Most of us, however, spend our waking moments immersed in fragmented, siloed, disconnected lives and organizations. Interconnection is still relegated to theory, not part of daily routine. Our education system and MBA programs drill students on facts, subjects and linear cause/effect, not relationships and systems. Chain booksellers and big data slice the book market into ever-smaller niche categories that don’t reflect the complex nature of our actual lives. Healthcare specialists treat isolated aspects of systemic diseases without addressing the full complexity of the human body. Like a fish unaware of the water in which it swims, we take this pervasive worldview as “just how things are” even as we gripe about its side effects.
Ours is not the only worldview
Yet a look at Asian culture reveals a fundamentally dissimilar way of seeing the world. Eastern philosophy and society are more holistic, with a focus on relationships, context and interconnection. Language reinforces these differences: Chinese characters are pictograms, the meaning of which must be interpreted through context, whereas in the West our language is built on modular letters, words and grammar. Even the practice of feng shui for choosing building sites (including Hong Kong skyscrapers) reflects the idea that the factors affecting outcomes are extraordinarily complex and interactive.
History can shed some light on these differences. Ancient Chinese culture was strongly influenced by Confucianism, which focused on relationships and co-humanity, and by the need to navigate society’s complex social structures. Conversely, Westerners are philosophical descendants of the ancient Greeks who celebrated individuality, autonomy, and personal control. Their inventions of logic, categorization and linear “cause & effect” thinking comprise the now-invisible foundation of so-called developed civilizations.
"The Greeks tended to focus on the object and to explain its behavior with reference only to its properties and the categories to which it belonged. In contrast, the Chinese recognized that action always occurs in a field of forces… The ancient Greeks saw stability in their worlds, while the ancient Chinese saw change; indeed, in line with the yin and yang of the Tao, always being in the process of reverting to the opposite of the current state." (source)
Today, these differences manifest along two key dimensions:
- Social orientation: Independence (uniqueness) versus interdependence (harmony)
- Cognitive style: Analytic (object-focused, categorization, causality) versus holistic (field-focused, relationships).
These cultural differences have profound implications for solving the complex challenges of our day. An article in Psychology Today observed that
"analytic thinkers are more likely than holistic thinkers to commit the fundamental attribution error—overestimating the impact of persons and underestimating the impact of situations when explaining events. They’re also more likely to predict that a trend (in the stock market, for example) will persist and not reverse direction."
So unlike holistic-thinking cultures who understand that “events are the products of external forces and situations” and who think in terms of systems and change, most Westerners may be wired to think and act in a way that undermines our long-term sustainability: me versus we, silos versus systems.
Perhaps this cultural programming is why complexity and systems thinking hasn’t gained much traction in the corporate world after a couple decades of buzz in the business press. A recent post on HBR.com titled “Why Managers Haven’t Embraced Complexity” highlighted several of our culturally inherited traits:
"Complexity wasn't a convenient reality given managers' desire for control. The promise of applying complexity science to business has undoubtedly been held up by managers' reluctance to see the world as it is. Where complexity exists, managers have always created models and mechanisms that wish it away. It is much easier to make decisions with fewer variables and a straightforward understanding of cause-and-effect... Placing a rigid priority on maximizing shareholder returns makes things clear for decision-makers and relieves them of considering difficult tradeoffs."
In a similar vein, a Fast Company article noted that “systems thinking, despite its wartime successes never really captured the imagination of business leaders…. the number and sequence of things that must be done has become so arcane that to master it seems all but impossible to the managers in question.”
Me, not we
Our cultural programming not only affects business but also our society’s response to altruistic calls to act and serve for the betterment of others and the planet. New research published in Psychological Science revealed that “public campaigns that call upon people to think and act interdependently may undermine motivation among Americans.” Across three different experiments, the researchers found that European Americans who were primed to think about interdependent behavior showed less motivation and persistence in research tasks than European Americans primed to think about independence.
"Decades of research in the social sciences have shown that fostering people’s sense of independence is the most effective driver of behavior among Americans. “Appeals to interdependence might sound nice or like the right thing to do, but they will not get the job done for many Americans,” says Hamedani. A better strategy for motivating action among European Americans may be to encourage individual effort for the good of the team or collective, urging each individual to 'be the change YOU want to see in the world.'"
Can we shift?
Interestingly, across the previous three studies, Asian American students’ behavior did not vary when interdependence vs. independence was emphasized. The researchers hypothesized that bi-cultural Americans, having been exposed to both modes of thought, were able to see the benefits of both approaches.
Fortunately for us, we’re finding that modes of cognition are not permanently locked in place by either culture or genetics (an implication with which many of you Western systems-thinking readers would agree.) Not only do working-class American adults show “more holistic patterns of cognition” than the average middle-class Americans, we also see differences in cultures like Eastern Europeans, Orthodox Jewish boys, southern versus northern Italians, and even farming villages versus non-farming villages in Turkey. (source)
A report in Psychology Today observed that “each of us has the ability to think either analytically or holistically, a talent that often goes unrecognized,” and goes on to reassure us:
"Can Westerners think like East Asians? Absolutely. And East Asians can think like Westerners. In fact, most of us have the capacity to think analytically or holistically, depending on our state of mind. When East Asians are encouraged to think about their uniqueness, they often “wheel in” their analytical mental module, so to speak. When Westerners are primed to think about their relatedness to others, they often switch to a more holistic way of thinking. The default (or habit) for most Westerners, especially men, is to think analytically—and the default for most East Asians is to think holistically."
Good news indeed. However, our extremely independent, fragmented culture has been built over hundreds and thousands of years; our education system starts the silo-indoctrination process very young, and every other aspect of our society reinforces this view. So attempts to shift our modes of thinking are a bit like turning the Titanic, and we need baby steps to begin weaning ourselves off the “me-me-me” and overly simplistic programming.
An analogy from the Buddhist idea of self can give us direction: We can see a hand as one unit, or a collection of five independent fingers. Each finger is distinct and serves its own role, yet it doesn’t operate independently of the whole. Likewise, our Western culture has focused for too long on individual fingers; we simply need to expand our awareness to realize how we’re connected. And yet we must remember in this process to not solely focus on “the hand” at the expense of the fingers; individualism is a fact of life in our society, and failure to honor that fact will set us up for failure.
So this is a call for both/and thinking. We can celebrate our uniqueness and analytical strengths while also expanding our horizons to include our shared humanity and the environment in which we live; we can align individuals and enable movement towards shared goals as long as the right structures are in place. The next post will introduce one way to do that: what I call creating "intentional coherence" across personal, organizational and cross-sector levels.
Dear reader, I'd love your thoughts. Have our siloed culture and independent cognitive styles gotten us so stuck in "me" that we'll be unable to see "we" before it's too late? What will America's role be (realistically) in solving the systemic problems that we face given our aversion to complexity?