Sunday, September 21, 2014

Slicing the Culture Pie

In her book “Overwhelmed” (on the pressures of work-life balance, among other topics), Brigit Schulte describes her trip to Denmark and her interviews with working couples there.  Here’s what she writes about work life in that country:

“Danes don’t live to work.  Danes work hard … but they work in a very focused way.  Lunch is usually no more than half an hour …  Most Danes work the standard thirty-seven hours a week.  Long hours are outlawed for most workers under the European Union’s Working Time Directive … no European is allowed to work more than forty-eight hours a week … Workplaces tend to be flat, without a lot of layers of management … Most Danes don’t feel obligated to check their smartphones and e-mail after hours … people who put in long hours and constantly check e-mail after hours are seen not as ideal worker warriors, as in America, but as inefficient … “

And yet, Schulte points out, “The Danish economy is one of the most competitive in the world, just a few rungs below the United States.  And it’s one of the most productive, ranking just behind the United States … Denmark has a low unemployment rate and one of the highest standards of living in the world.  It has one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor of any country on earth … and only 6 percent of Danes find it difficult or very difficult to live on their current income, compared to 21 percent of Americans …”.

Those of us who have worked in several countries are fully aware of the differences in workplace cultures from country to country.  And scholars from Hofstede to Trompenaars have constructed outstanding frameworks to help us understand and explain variations in these cultures.  In applying some of these frameworks over the years, I have found them helpful to some extent.  It is important to have a common vocabulary to be able to compare different cultural values, especially those relevant to the workplace.  In personality research, there is general agreement on a few selected taxonomies like the Big Five (McCrae and Costa) that most mainstream psychologists use to describe people’s personalities.

I don’t believe we are at a similar point with regard to describing different workplace cultures across countries.  There has been outstanding research in this area, pioneered by Hofstede; his dimensions have scores by which we can compare different countries.  Although his methodology has been criticized, his analysis seems to make a lot of sense to many managers and students.  There has also been considerable research on organizational cultures (Cameron and Quinn, Denison and Mishra), with a few of these dimensions (e.g., adaptability, hierarchy) overlapping with those of Hofstede et al. 

In my experience and interviews with managers globally over the years, I have drawn from these past scholars, as well as the more recent work by Lane et al. to offer a framework that is still a work in progress, but I believe is useful to managers working globally. It can be easily remembered with the acronym FASTAIDE, which stands for the first letters of each of the eight dimensions of workplace culture.  The idea here is that there is a set of dimensions by which to compare different countries’ cultures as they relate to workplace behaviors. 

1.     Formality – How formal should I be? At the one extreme are cultures where people are very informal, not only in terms of their interactions with one another but also in terms of how decisions get made, their appearance and the physical environment.  In the workplace, people refer to each other, and even senior executives, by their first names.  Dress is typically casual, and there are not a lot of rituals involved in meetings and business discussions.  At the other extreme are cultures that are quite formal, from attire to the way people address each other to the way meetings are conducted.  Titles are important, and offices are designed to reflect this.  In general, countries like Australia and the Netherlands tend to have informal cultures, while countries like France and Russia tend to have more formal workplace cultures.
2.     Authoritarianism – How directive should I be?  Some cultures such as France and Mexico expect bosses to give orders and run a command-and-control type of organization, while other cultures such as Israel expect their bosses to be more participative, asking for input from others and valuing a more bottom-up approach. 
3.     Structure – How much detail should I provide; how explicit should I be?  In some cultures such as Greece and Uruguay, employees prefer to have things spelled out in order to reduce any ambiguity.  For example, job descriptions are essential, and employees have handbooks that describe the company’s procedures in detail.  In other cultures such as Sweden, employees have a higher tolerance for ambiguity.  Hofstede refers to this as uncertainty avoidance.
4.     Time Orientation – How concerned should I be about time commitments?  Some cultures such as Switzerland and Germany are very strict on time, whether it’s when meetings start and end, or on deadlines for projects.  Hall describes this as linear or monochromic time.  Other cultures such as Central and South American countries are more fluid and flexible about time.  Promptness and following a schedule are not as important as focusing on relationships.  So schedules are not adhered to strictly and interruptions are welcome.  Hall refers to this as flexible or polychromic time. 
5.     Aggressive – How aggressively should I behave?  There is a lot of evidence of differences in aggressiveness across cultures.  And some would vigorously defend promoting aggressiveness in the workplace, suggesting that doing so improves productivity and profitability.  In countries like South Korea, it is not uncommon to have shouting matches among co-workers.  There is a tendency towards pushiness, an in-your-face mindset.  In other cultures like Canada, workers can still be competitive but will not be as confrontational.
6.     Individualism – How much should I focus on individual needs and goals versus group needs and goals?  In some cultures, such as the U.S.A. and Australia, the emphasis is on “I” and self-reliance.  These cultures value individual over group identity, and individual rights are very important.  Managers hold individuals personally accountable.  In other cultures, such as China and some Latin American countries, the emphasis is on a larger entity, such as the group, organization or tribe.  The good of the group often trumps the individual rights of individuals.   
7.     Directness – How straightforward should I be?  Some cultures such as Australia and the U.S. encourage managers to get straight to the point.  In other cultures such as some East African countries, the message is more subtle and indirect. What is implied is more important than what is actually stated.  People in these cultures place a lot of emphasis on nonverbal communication.  This is similar to Hall’s concept of high and low context cultures. 
8.     Expressiveness – How much should I show my emotions and be transparent?  In countries like South Korea, this is well accepted in the work place, while in countries like Russia and Hungary, you almost have to wear a poker face, or at least not reveal what they are really feeling.

I want to make three points about this framework.  First, each of these is on a continuum and while countries can be arrayed along this continuum, it is important to consider the relative standing of countries on each dimension rather than their absolute position.  Second, like Hofstede, these dimensions tend to be relatively independent of each other, although there may be clusters.  For example, informal cultures also tend to be non-authoritarian cultures.  Third, these are average or central tendencies.  It does not mean that everyone in that culture behaves in accordance with these dimensions.  For example, you may meet a Chinese executive in Beijing who might be expected to behave a certain way based on your categorization of Chinese work place culture.  Yet you may discover that this Chinese executive actually went to college in America, worked for a Swiss company in Lucerne, and got his MBA at Insead.  She would not be expected to fit the typical profile.

Cameron, K. and Quinn, T.  (1999).  Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture.  Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley.

Denison, D., and Mishra, A.  (1995).  Toward a Theory of Organizational Culture and Effectiveness.  Organization Science, 6, 2, 204-223.
Hofstede, G.  Culture’s Consequences (second edition).  (2001).  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

Lane, H. et al.  International Management Behavior (sixth edition).  (2009).  United Kingdom:  Wiley.

McCrae, R. and Costa, P.  (1987).  Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instrument and observers.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81-90.

Schulte, B.  Overwhelmed.  (2014).  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Trompenaars, H.  Riding the Waves of Culture:  Understanding Cultural Diversity.  (1993).  London:  Economist Books.