Tight vs. Loose Business

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Michele Gelfand (Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland) has developed a theory in cross-cultural psychology.

She states that:

‘’There’s a single dimension that captures a lot about how cultures differ: a spectrum between “tight” and “loose,” referring to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected.’’

You can listen to hear talk about it with physicist Sean Carroll here or read her book here.

In any culture, you have rules and expectations that keep societal order.

These are wrapped up in social norms.

If people didn’t abide by these, our behavior would be very unpredictable and it would be hard to coordinate actions on almost anything.

However, her research has shown that there’s a difference between groups.

Some have much stronger norms (tight) and other much weaker norms (loose).

In some areas, tightness is desirable (using all my will power not to make an inappropriate joke) such as the military, medicine or law.

In other areas you want looseness, making a film or music.

But cultures vary in the degree to which they emphasize norms and their compliance with them.

If you run a manufacturing company, you’ll want a tight group who’ll adhere to rules.

But you could probably use a bit more looseness in order to get innovation and creative ideas.

If you run a technology company, you’ll probably want a loose group. People who break the rules and thus are able to create disruptive innovation.

But you could probably benefit from some structure which tightness brings.

Tight and loose aren’t good or bad. They’re different.

And depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s worth thinking about where you’d like your company to be at on that spectrum.

RJ Youngling