Are differences across cultures diminishing? With globalization and the dominance of U.S. culture over the past few decades, several of my students and as well as managers I have discussed this with believe that they seem to be.
For example, Alex is a Singaporean human resources manager working for a French company based in Singapore and who has a regional role. He has a network of colleagues from his company all around the world, as well as other HR professionals from other countries and other industries. He speaks English fluently and in fact went to university in the U.S. and completed his MBA at London Business School. He enjoys listening to jazz, loves Indian food, and likes to shop at Brooks Brothers and Uniqlo for his apparel needs. Is Alex (and many others like him around the world) Exhibit A that our tastes and preferences are becoming more convergent? On the other hand, what about those who choose to become part of a self-selected culture that is often at odds with this global culture? Arnett (2002) cites religious groups such as Orthodox Jews and fundamentalists, as well as certain non-religious groups. Will these groups continue to exist outside the mainstream for the most part, or will they eventually be assimilated into this global workplace culture?
Over the past few decades, since Hofstede began his pioneering research on cultural differences in the workplace and the launch of the massive GLOBE study as well as the World Values Survey examining differences in cultural values, thousands of research papers and articles have been written on the validity and usefulness of comparing national differences in workplace cultural orientations or values. Terms such as “power distance” and “uncertainty avoidance” have become commonplace in the management field. However, as I pointed out in my recent book Successful Global Leadership (Henson, 2016), generalizations about workplace cultural values should be taken with caution for the following reasons.
First, each of these orientations is on a continuum and, while cultures can be arrayed along this continuum, it is important to consider the relative standing of cultures on each orientation rather than their absolute position. For example, while many would consider the U.S. as a more “direct” or confrontational culture relative to say, China, it is relatively less direct than other countries like Germany.
Second, these orientations are averages or central tendencies. It does not mean that everyone in that culture behaves in accordance with these orientations. Individuals within a culture will tend to fall along a distribution, although the shape of the distribution (e.g., tall or flat) may vary depending on the specific cultural orientation. For example, you may meet a Chinese executive in Beijing who you expect to behave in a certain way based on your understanding of Chinese cultural values. However, when you find out that this Chinese executive went to college in America, worked for a Swiss company in Lucerne, and got his MBA at Insead, this individual will be an outlier compared to the average Chinese.
Third, because cultures can evolve over time, these orientations should be considered as a starting point in analyzing countries’ workplace cultural orientations. Technology and globalization have created a “flatter” world, and managers everywhere are increasingly exposed to management practices from all over the world. It is understandable that these external factors will have an influence on employees’ beliefs and values around these orientations. For example, Migliore (2011) found relatively low power distance scores in her study of young Indian managers, which she attributes in part to the greater exposure of Indian mangers to technology and their interactions with global companies.
Fourth, some of these orientations are multidimensional, so it is possible to have a culture that may be on both extremes of an orientation, depending on its specific sub-dimensions. Gannon (2007) makes this point well in his discussion of paradoxes around monochronic versus polychronic time, and with low and high context. Because the original formulation of time and context offered several interpretations of this dimension, it is possible that two extremes can co-exist. Gannon gives the example of the karaoke bar which allows for the expression of low-context behavior and in fact serves as an emotional outlet for people in high-context cultures. Gannon states: “While it is possible to describe the dominant profile of a culture as either low context or high context, we must realize that cultures can be both low context and high context but in different situations and contexts.” (p. 87)
Triandis (1995) has also suggested that polar opposites in each of these orientations can co-exist. For example, he states: “All of us carry both individualist and collectivist tendencies; the difference is that in some cultures the probability that individualist selves, attitudes, norms, values and behaviors will be sampled or used is higher than in others.” (p. 42). There may indeed be situations when individuals behave contrary to the general expectations of the culture.
Let’s go back to Alex. Despite all the outward signs, he is also deeply rooted in Singapore, with a Singaporean wife and two children, plus parents and in-laws and other relatives. He is very proud of his nation-state, and like many Singaporeans has a deep respect for Lee Kwan Yew. He and his family follow Buddhist principles, although he is not deeply religious. As Edgar Schein and others have pointed out, culture has several layers. The superficial, if you will, is above the iceberg, and includes artifacts and visible aspects. The more deeply held beliefs and values are below the iceberg, and require more time (and reflection) to recognize and understand them.
Nisbett (2010) provides an excellent discussion of some of the fundamental differences between East Asians and Westerners in his book The Geography of Thought. Two specific examples he gives are particularly striking. First, he cites a primer that Americans of a certain age will remember. In this early childhood book, Dick and Jane along with their dog Spot are the main characters. In one of these books, a pre-primer, there are pictures of Dick and Jane with the captions, “See Dick. See Dick run” and “See Jane. See Jane run. Run, Jane, run.” Nisbett compared this primer with the first page of a Chinese primer in the same time period showing a picture of a little boy on the shoulders of a bigger boy. The caption, according to Nisbett, reads “Big brother takes care of little brother. Big brother loves little brother. Little brother loves big brother.” Note the emphasis on relationships versus individual action, as Nisbett observes.
The second example is even more directly relevant to the work place. A typical statement or probe from a person who might be interviewing someone for a position for which he/she is applying for is the following: “Tell me about yourself.” According to Nisbett, Americans tend to respond to this question by focusing on their personality traits, role categories, and activities. I might also add that in an interview setting, Americans might talk about their job history and some of their individual accomplishments. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, on the other hand, describe themselves invariably in terms of context. In one study that he cites, “Japanese found it very difficult to describe themselves without specifying a particular kind of situation – at work at home, with friends, etc. Americans, in contrast, tended to be stumped when the investigator specified a context, reflecting a belief that ‘I am what I am.’” (p. 53) Such cultural differences are deeply rooted, and in the case of Asians in particular, go back many centuries.
In summary, here are two points to remember. First, cultural preferences as well as workplace cultures do seem to be converging in terms of some of their superficial aspects (e.g., dress, musical tastes, food). However, values and beliefs that in many cases have been shaped over thousands of years, and are still being reinforced through parenting and educational practices, continue to define overall cultures as well as workplace cultures. Second, we carry multiple identities, and which identity we decide to take on may depend on the situation. We may be a global manager at work and in our interactions with headquarters bosses, yet remain rooted in our own national culture when managing and influencing local workers.
Arnett (2002) suggests that many young people today develop a global identity in addition to retaining their local identity. Their global identity gives them a sense of belonging to a worldwide culture, while they continue to retain their local identity. Take the collectivistic belief around the importance of family, and specifically beliefs around obligations towards one’s parents. In many individualistic societies, children are not expected to take care of their parents as they age; placing the elderly in assisted living and nursing home facilities is fairly common in these countries. Yet in describing this practice even to well-educated and well-traveled managers in collectivistic cultures, some express disbelief that adult children would even consider placing their parents in nursing homes as opposed to having their parents come and live with them in their homes. The sense of obligation and family ties are very strong despite their exposure to the outside world and global trends.
For managers and organizations, my advice would be the following. First, while recognizing that on the surface, your employees and teams in different countries may behave similarly (e.g., they will all speak English rather fluently, wear the latest fashions, like Western cuisine and rock music), continue to recognize and respect cultural differences especially in terms of their values and beliefs. Be careful in making assumptions about underlying beliefs and values based on what you see on the surface. “We all work for the same company and speak English, so underneath we are all alike” is one such common but mistaken assumption. For example, recognizing that power distance is valued in some cultures may mean that you will have to adjust your management style to become a bit more authoritarian at times. Several practices to empower employees (such as Zappos’ holocracy approach) would not work that well in such cultures.
Second, continue to find ways to integrate these differences (rather than ignoring or suppressing them) to build a high-performance team. Youseff and Luthans (2012) refer to “ambicultural” managers - those who are looking for the best of both cultural worlds, rather than viewing the differences as a gap that should be minimized or eliminated. A good way to do this, especially in cultures where team members may be hesitant initially to express their ideas, is to make sure your statements reinforce your willingness and desire to listen to their ideas. For example, you might say “I am interested in what you think about this idea” or “If you have any concerns, I would be interested in learning about them.” You might ask your team members what might happen if a certain management practice were implemented in their subsidiary, or what some of the barriers might be in implementing such a practice, and what could be done to address these barriers.
This approach actually works well in many cultural contexts, including the U.S. O’Toole and Bennis (2009) point to a study on NASA’s findings about the human factors involved in airline accidents. The study placed existing cockpit crews—pilot, copilot, navigator—in flight simulators and tested them to see how they would respond during the crucial 30 to 45 seconds between the first sign of a potential accident and the moment it would occur. The “flyboy” pilots, who acted immediately on their gut instincts, made the wrong decisions far more often than other pilots who said to their crews, in effect, “We’ve got a problem. How do you read it?” before choosing a course of action. The pilots who’d made the right choices routinely had open exchanges with their crew members.
Arnett, J. (2002). The Psychology of Globalization. American Psychologist, 57 (10): 774-783.
Gannon, M. (2007). Paradoxes of Culture and Globalization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Henson, R. (2016). Successful Global Leadership: Frameworks for Cross-Cultural Managers and Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Migliore, L. (2011). Relation Between Big Five Personality Traits and Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Samples from the USA and India. Cross-Cultural Management: An International Journal, 18(1): 38-54.
Nisbett, R. (2010). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster.
O’Toole, J. and Bennis, W. (2009). A Culture of Candor. Harvard Business Review.
Triandis, H. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Youseff, M. and Luthans, F. (2012). Positive Global Leadership. Journal of World Business, 47 (4): 539-547.