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Executive Feature

Tight or Loose: How Culture Impacts Everything, Even Your Job

Posted by Amy Elisa Jackson

Last Updated January 25, 2019
|13 min read

Did you know that living in a state or city with a high number of natural disasters effects whether you abide by social norms and rules? That clocks on city streets in Germany are much more accurate than those in Brazil? That the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? That working for companies like Facebook and Tesla might be harder for people from some states from the South and MIdwest? Or, did you know that industries like aviation, manufacturing and construction can find it difficult to hire innovators or creatives?

According to a new book by cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand, “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World,” much of the diversity in the way we think and act derives from a key difference—how tightly or loosely we adhere to social norms. Looking a countries, states, cities, workplaces and even families, Gelfand shows how tight and loose cultures shape our entire lives, and play a big role in the decisions we make around where we live, what company we work for and how we approach others.

After a riveting conversation with Recode/Decode journalist Kara Swisher, Glassdoor invited Gelfand to share her insights with our employees and executives. People from across the Glassdoor globe tuned in to hear Gelfand’s insights on tech culture, how to shift company culture, and how job seekers can find a company culture that best suits them.

Here are the highlights of our conversation!

Glassdoor: Thanks for joining us, Michele. What was the inspiration for writing this book?

Michele Gelfand: I wrote this book to try to provide a new vocabulary for people to see the world and themselves. I'm a cross-cultural psychologist which means that I study human behavior around the world, across traditional societies, across modern nations, across states, organizations.

What we try to do is look beyond just the superficial aspects of culture, like red versus blue or east/west, rich/poor, Silicon Valley and the rest, to understand the deeper cultural codes that drive our behavior.

Glassdoor: Given all of your research, what did you discover about cultures, organizations and social norms?

Michele Gelfand: What I've discovered over a couple of decades is that there's a pretty simple principle that can explain a lot of variation around the world—it has to do with how strictly we abide by social norms. Social norms are basically unwritten standards for behavior and every group has them. But what I've been looking at is how strict those rules are and how much permissiveness there is for rule-breaking, and I differentiate tight cultures that have strict norms and punishments from loose cultures that are laxer and have more permissiveness.

The first study that I did on this was published in the Journal Science in 2011. I was looking at can we place nations in general on a continuum of tight and loose. And sure enough, we could show that we can. Places like Germany, Austria, Japan, Singapore, in general, veer tight. Places like New Zealand, Brazil, Greece, the US, to some extent, veer looser, and what we can see is a really interesting pattern in terms of the consequences of those differences for human groups.

For example, we found an interesting tight-loose trade-off: Tight cultures have a lot of order, less crime. They have more uniformity and synchrony and they have more self-control. They have less debt, less obesity, less crime, and they have self-regulation. Loose cultures are comparatively very disorganized and they have more crime, a lot of self-regulation failures. However, loose cultures corner the market on openness. What we find is they're more open to different types of people, immigrants, stigmatized individuals, they're more open to new ideas, more creative, and they're more open to change.

Glassdoor: How do countries and cultures become tight or loose?

Michele Gelfand: One of the things I wanted to know is why do these differences evolve in the first place? So I measured for example how many times over the last 100 years a country has been potentially invaded, or how many natural disasters has a country had? How much population density do they have? It makes sense to have more rules when you have a lot of ecological or human threat because you need rules to coordinate to survive.

Also, the 50 states can be classified into tight or loose, and we could see the same exact pattern. The tight states, which tend to be in the South and some in the Midwest, have more threat. They have more natural disasters, they have more pathogen prevalence, they have more food insecurity, and we show the same exact order of order versus openness at the state level. I’ve also partnered with computer scientists to look at this with computer models—and we can see that where there is threat, tightness evolves.

Glassdoor: You found that the same is true for individuals, right?

Michele Gelfand: Yes, we saw the same when it came to our own tight and loose mindsets. On my website, you can take the Tight Loose Quiz to learn where you generally fall on the tight-loose spectrum. In my book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, I talk about how these mindsets affect a lot of our daily lives, the conflicts we have, and how we can negotiate them.

Interestingly, you can zoom in even further to other subcultures, for example, the working class and upper class. The working class has a lot more threat, such as being worried about falling into poverty, dealing with more dangerous occupations, and living in more threating neighborhoods. So it’s not surprising that they like rules much more. The upper class has a safety net so they can afford to break rules sometimes. Even in our studies of three-year-olds, we see that three-year-old kids from the working class are more likely to object to a puppet violating the rules than upper-class kids. So these things are socialized very early in subgroups.

Glassdoor: What are the essential ways that tight and loose organizations vary?

Michele Gelfand: Organizations that have a lot of threat and coordination issues, like airlines or police, manufacturing, construction, they tend to veer tighter because they need to mitigate risk. This includes occupations where there's a lot of oversight, regulations, law, think accounting, banking, and law. Loose organizations, like tech and design, have less threat, so they need fewer rules.

Tight and loose organizations fundamentally differ in terms of their people, practices, and leaders. Tight companies tend to have people who are more careful and conscientious. They tend to have practices that are pretty standardized and formal and efficient, and they have leaders who are more autonomous and confident.

In loose organizations, we have leaders and employees who are much more open and risk-taking. They have practices that have much more discretion and exploration, experimentation, much less onboarding. Loose cultures traditionally have leaders that are much more visionary and collaborative.

You can imagine when tight and loose organizations try to merge—they have a lot of culture conflict! Think Amazon and Wholefoods, or Daimler- Chrysler. In the book, I estimate the price tag of cultural incompatibility between tight and loose organizations that try to merge. It’s important to identify these differences ahead of time and develop a plan to manage the tight-loose differences.

Glassdoor: When so many employees in tech enjoy the “move fast, break things” wildness of startup life, how can employers and companies evaluate possible companies for whether they are too loose or too tight? What are the signs job seekers can look for?

Michele Gelfand: The best leaders are ambidextrous. All companies need tight and loose in some combination and all employees, prospective employees, want an organization that has some degree of rules but also some degree of freedom. There are ways that employees can search for signs when organizations are becoming too tight or too loose on Glassdoor.

Some of the questions job seekers can ask themselves when evaluating companies are: Is it really helicopter-like, and monitoring employees excessively? Is the company super hierarchical? Is it ultra-standardized? Is there so many rules in so many domains that people can't breathe? Are people punished for very small things? I looked on Glassdoor and people who describing ultra tight companies with phrases like "They're extremely hierarchical," "They're rigid," "They're bureaucratic," "They're micromanaging to the point of how many times you can use the restroom.”

On the flip side, sometimes cultures look really chaotic, unstructured or there are no rules and you really don't know how to get your work done and there's very little oversight. On Glassdoor, there were lots of comments about excessive looseness, with phrases like “they're too disorganized and decentralized,” “minimal top-down strategy,” “extremely chaotic,” “irregular rules”, “process is unclear, unstated, and nonexistent.”

Glassdoor: In your book, you talk about the Goldilocks principle. Talk to us about that in terms of rule breakers and rule makers.

Michele Gelfand: The Goldilocks principle is basically as it sounds. It’s all in moderation, not too hot, not too cold. In organizations, even if organizations veer tight or loose for good reasons, if they get to the extreme, they have serious problems.

When tight companies are in need of loosening up, I call it “Flexible Tightness.” An example of this is I saw an interesting video on United Airlines where normally when you're late for the plane they shut the door. The video showed this kid who was flying to have a kidney transplant and the guy already closed the door. He said, "No, I'm not opening the door." Then he suddenly realized, "Wait a second. I have some discretion to open that door again, because this is a life or death situation." It was a fascinating video about flexible tightness.

Toyota is also a good example of a company that used to be super tight for a variety of reasons, both the industry but also the nation, and now they're trying to insert a little flexibility to that system. They’re doing it by delegating decisions to middle managers and encouraging employees to be creative in the context of an eight step process.

Then, when you have too loose of a system and need to tighten up, I call it “Structured Looseness.” There's some resistance on this because loose cultures value autonomy and they don't want to be micromanaged. But they may need a little more structure, a little more oversight. In this case, collaborating with employees to actually get buy-in is really how change happens.

Glassdoor: What are two or three ways that current employees can help shift company culture away from being very tight or very loose?

Michele Gelfand: Employees are not passive in this process. They can also go to their leaders with the tight-loose vocabulary and say, "I think we need to tighten up a little bit in these domains and we need to loosen up in these domains." You can start small with just a suggestion (e.g., is this rule really necessary when trying to loosen? Is there a way to be better aligned through some regular meetings and hard, specific goals in introducing tightness).

They can model it also to their own employees and their own teams in a lot of ways. For example, to initiate structured looseness, you can introduce some more rules and benchmarks, particularly to create alignment and coordination while also enabling people to be creative. But to initiate flexible tightness, you might need to introduce some discretion and latitude (in non-safety domains) and allow exploration—give employees unstructured time for brainstorming.

Leaders are really important in this process to be able to communicate to employees that we need both order and openness and that we're not gonna move in the extreme direction.

Glassdoor: I found your commentary on the psychology of unaccountability very interesting.  What is unaccountability and why is it vital?

Michele Gelfand: Any cultural system, whether it's a nation or a family, needs some degree of accountability. When you think about a world without accountability, it would be a disaster. Imagine you walk outside on the street and you drive on the road and people just decide, "I'm just gonna drive on the right today instead of the left." Humans developed rules and accountability to avoid these kinds of scenarios because we need to predict each other's behavior. But of course, groups vary on how much accountability they have. Organizations have to match the level of accountabilities to their environmental demands.

People in high power positions tend to live in looser worlds. Women and minorities tend to live in tighter worlds. So nowadays we're finding with the #MeToo movement, we're realizing that power should have some constraints. A lot of these brave women coming out are trying to basically say, "Look. You have to have more accountability."

Glassdoor: What do powerful companies like Facebook, Uber, and Tesla who have had really tough years do to shift the conversation? How can they prove they are rule breakers within reason?

Michele Gelfand: A lot of people are wondering whether Zuckerman and other senior execs should have known that the technology was going to connect people but also foster a lot of unaccountability. Shouldn't he have known what he was creating? The reality is these are tech people, engineers and so forth. They didn't understand the human element of what they were creating. For decades psychologists have been showing that when people aren’t monitored, they engage in all sorts of antinormative behavior; they’re less accountable. The senior leaders in tech didn't understand the psychology of accountability. Now it's time to understand that, and take ownership and responsibility for the cultures that are being created in this context, what the technology is creating in terms of the human element. The internet has arguably become too loose. We need more Goldilocks in terms of freedom and constraint.

But there are signs that this is changing. For example, on Reddit, you see that people are trying to balance having freedom but also calling out people who are really inappropriate. We can create spaces that balance tight and loose. And this is really important because we’re living our lives online.

Facebook needs to be transparent moving forward about how they're going to be trying to make changes. They have a lot of power and with power comes responsibility. They need to be proactive versus reactive. Above all, these businesses can do is to change their strategies and adapt to a more sustainable, balanced tight-loose approach to growth.

Glassdoor: Do you have any organizational or company culture predictions for 2019? Any significant shifts you predict will take place when it comes to organizational cultures?

Michele Gelfand:I think that what we've been talking about in terms of trying to get more accountability, particularly in social media companies and companies like Tesla and others that have been veering on the loose end, that there's this kind of sense that okay, the move fast and break rules thing worked early on, but now we need to get to a healthier state of trying to balance tight and loose. There's clearly a lot more discussion happening between Washington and Silicon Valley on a more formalized sense, so I think that's something that is going to be really interesting to watch.


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