CULTURAL DIMENSIONS - A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
When Geert Hofstede, an engineer at IBM, launched a series of statistical surveys among the staff of the American multinational in the early 1970s, he had no idea that he had just triggered a small revolution in the field of social sciences.
The purpose of his questionnaires was to understand the major cultural forces that drive us and that make an Englishman react differently from an Indian, an Australian or a Mexican in a given situation.
The concept of cultural dimension was born!
The concept of cultural dimension
At the heart of Geert Hofstede’s thinking is the famous notion of cultural dimension. The surveys he has conducted have led him to highlight four major dimensions:
– the importance of social hierarchy,
– the relationship to uncertainty,
– the distribution of male/female roles.
His analysis lead him to the conclusion that each culture is more or less at one extreme of these four dimensions. An individual belonging to a particular culture will tend to react to events and circumstances according to this mix.
As a precursor in his field, others have followed him and the model, which has long since proved its worth, and continued to grow.
Other dimensions have been added to this scheme over time:
– the focus on the short or long term in decision making,
– the place given to norms in social behaviour,
– direct or indirect communication styles, etc.
These are all criteria which, if mastered at least in broad terms, are very useful for managing multicultural teams where the reactions of individuals to the same stimulus can vary completely, simply because of cultural bias.
Focus on a very telling dimension:
The place of hierarchy in intercultural relations
This dimension analyses the place of status in the configuration of a society and by extension, of an organization, a structure, a work team.
In some cultures, the place of each person must be precisely established. There are those who decide, direct and those who execute. In such highly hierarchical societies, the leader is expected to give clear instructions and it would not occur to the participants in a meeting, for example, to contradict the directives.
On the contrary, in more egalitarian cultures, there is a leader because there has to be one, as a guide, but he can be challenged. He expects to be challenged, and would be surprised if his colleagues did not give him their opinion, and cooperate with him.
A small illustration of this phenomenon:
Throughout my career, I had the chance to visit colleagues in Japan to give them a training course we had prepared at our Parisian company headquarters.
It was a very pleasant stay, and we received a warm welcome, but I experienced a few days of training without receiving a single comment or question from my Japanese colleagues.
An explanation to this attitude
The head of the department was in attendance at our sessions, and it was inconceivable for his subordinates to speak. Only he could have done so, but since I was representing headquarters, I had to be considered –despite my young age – as the leader in the room, and he thus considered he could not contradict me either.
During the same trip, the American teams located in Hawaii joined us in Japan to follow the same training the following days.
And there, change of scenery: the questions and challenges appeared even before I could launch the first introduction session…
Gone were the privileges of headquarters and status, replaced by open discussion open to all employees regardless of their hierarchical position.
An extremely formative week … for me at least!
I had just experienced first-hand the great cultural gap between the hyper-hierarchical Japanese society and the much more egalitarian American society.
A good lesson to consider when you have to deal with teams with very different cultural backgrounds.
It is of course very important never to consider these famous cultural dimensions as set in stone and unshakeable. To assume that all French people will always react a certain way to a given situation would be absurd. Each individual is unique, has their own background, and their singular lived experience.
However, the cultural dimensions are pertinent as they outline the major cultural foundations in which we grow up.
Indeed, the culture to which we belong is a set of beliefs, values, ways of life, that are upheld by a group of people, etc. They are transmitted to us from birth and often without our being aware of it. This bias, which is necessary for our construction as individuals, accompanies us throughout our adult life. It transcends from who we are as individuals to how we behave in society, as well as at work.
Becoming aware and familiar with the major cultural dimensions is an asset for understanding oneself, as well as others, all of which can increase success.
It is also good manners, an openness to differences that helps gain self confidence in situations where differing points of view is an asset, if understood well. This is the key to professional success in multicultural environments.