Eastern and Western Ideas of Productivity

January 19, 2017 • Rehack Team


On the surface, the concept of productivity seems universal. The more you get done, the more productive you are. That may be the case in one sense, but different cultures can have varying ideas of what productivity means to them. What are the Western ideas versus the Eastern?

It, of course, can be dangerous to speak in broad generalizations when it comes to differences between specific cultures. At the same time, cultures are called “cultures” for a reason — the word is defined as the customs and institutions of a specific social group or nation.

When it comes to productivity in particular, there are both differences and similarities between Eastern and Western ideas and values. Here is a look at how the idea of productivity compares between East and West.

Individual Responsibility

One of the main differences between Eastern and Western ideas of productivity is who you’re talking about in the first place. Are you referring to individual productivity? Or the productivity of a larger group or organization?

In Eastern cultures, it’s much more common to think of productivity on a larger scale, as in the production of an entire group, business or organization. It’s not always as much about the productivity of each individual but more about the success of the group as a whole.

That’s not the case in Western cultures. Productivity in Western countries is more often judged on an individual basis — how much has this or that individual contributed to the group?

Despite the different ideas, the end goal is oftentimes the same. The success or productivity of a business or organization is typically the main goal. The difference is how various cultures reach that end goal. Eastern cultures generally focus first on the productivity of the group as a whole, while Western cultures tend to focus first on individual productivity.

What’s Your Motivation?

No matter which culture you’re looking at, motivation is a key factor in being productive. Here again, however, there are some differences between East and West.

The differences here are similar to above. Generally speaking, those in Western cultures tend to use individual motivation to drive their own personal productivity, while those in the East may use the overall success of the group as a motivating factor.

An interesting way to look at some of the basic differences between Eastern and Western cultures is to visualize them. That’s made possible with an artistic book called “East Meets West,” created by Yang Liu.

Each page of the book offers a word or phrase, with a graphic representation of how that phrase is interpreted in both the East and West. For example, for the word “boss,” the artists represents this in Western culture as a number of human figures that are all the same size, with the boss a different color. On the Eastern side, however, the boss is both a different color and much larger in size.

Leadership Roles

Leadership also plays a big role in productivity, but how does leadership differ in Eastern and Western cultures?

Generally speaking, there is cultural universality for three leadership behaviors:

  • Supportive
  • Contingent rewards
  • Charismatic

At the same time, cultural specificity is more common for leadership behaviors including:

  • Directive
  • Participative
  • Contingent punishment

One way to apply this in practical terms is to compare the management styles of the U.S. and China. Specifically, there tend to be differences in three main areas: responsibility and accountability; the perception of time; and individualism versus collectivism.

Again, there doesn’t have to be a so-called “right” way to do things. Even if the end goals remain the same for various cultures, the method in getting there often varies.

Blurring Lines

There are clear differences when it comes to the Eastern and Western ideas of productivity. That said, things could start to change in this age of connectivity, where it is so easy to communicate and learn from ideals from all corners of the globe.

While it may not mean wholesale changes in the near term, it’s likely that a more connected world will help Eastern and Western cultures learn from each other when it comes to productivity. That means learning and applying new ideas to what has worked in the past, and perhaps cutting back on methods that have not been as successful.