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By Matthew Woodhouse

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots" - Marcus Garvey

Introduction

The culture of an organisation can be heavily influenced by national and societal cultures, especially in today's global age where several different national cultures often interact. An appreciation of these cultures, and underlying factors, can help guide managers as to how best lead and organise their company.

Hofstede's Dimensions of Difference

Hofstede's Dimensions (Hofstede, 1991) is one of the most widely used paradigms in modern cross-cultural psychology. Hofstede identified five dimensions of difference between national cultures:
  • Power distance
    • How the unequal distribution of power is accepted
  • Uncertainty avoidance
    • How threatened the culture is by ambiguity (or conversely how they can tolerate ambiguity)
  • Individualism versus collectivism
    • Whether self-interest or working together for the collective good predominates
  • Masculinity versus femininity
    • Highly assertive “masculine values” versus concern for others’ welfare (“feminine values”)
  • Long-term versus short-term orientation (added later based on research by Michael Bond)
    • Long-term general goals versus orientation to short-term gain

Hofstede has his own website which has a great deal of information. See http://geert-hofstede.com.

Some of the results from Hofstede's first study (and hence only 4 dimensions) are shown below:

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Examples

There are many examples which highlight Hofstede's dimensions. A great instance is provided by Malcolm Gladwell in his book 'Outliers' (2009). In the chapter "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," Gladwell explains some cultural reasons behind a Korean Air plane crash in 1997. Gladwell even uses Hofstede's dimensions to perform the analysis.

Some of the key points raised are:
  • One of the main reasons for the crash was identified as the cultural misunderstandings between the Korean pilots and the New York air traffic control.
  • The correlation between high pilot power-distance index countries and the instances of plane crashes (the countries with the highest power-distance index are Brazil and South Korea).
  • Koreans have a low uncertainty-avoidance index, and therefore the discussion on the plane during the critical time was not explicit enough to avoid disaster.

Examples from my personal experience include:

  • Being very taken aback when working in Greece for the first time: I thought that everyone was shouting at me. It took me a while to realise that "healthy argument" via shouting and gesticulating was an everyday occurrence. In terms of the five dimensions, this is a good example of masculine assertion.
  • At the opposite end of the scale, I have often had difficulties getting people to say 'no' to me when working in India with subordinates. It got so bad I actively tried to phrase questions so people would have to say 'no'. It still didn't work. This is an example of 'power distance' (and also perhaps other Indian cultural values: 'yes' does not mean 'yes' either....).
  • Here in the UK, I think people tend to have a relatively low uncertainty-avoidance index, that is, they can tolerate ambiguity quite well. Various colleagues from abroad have mentioned on more than one occasion how they sometimes do not know they have been 'teased' or 'chastised' until some time later. Stereotypical British understatement is a kind of ambiguity to those not used to it.

An example of societal factors in organisational culture is the recent change imposed by Marissa Meyer of Yahoo: she made people start working in the office again instead of working from home. The ability to work from home has already become commonplace and therefore embedded in organisational culture, at least in certain 'professional cultures' such as high-tech. So the imposed change for Yahoo is a fundamental one. The decision might also have been made for other reasons (e.g. to wilfully get people to resign) but the impact on organisational culture will be substantial (and maybe for the good!)

If anyone has any analagous examples of their own, please feel free to add them in the discussion on this page.

Media


Here is a discussion on Hofstede's five dimensions.



See also the videos page for more information.

References


Gladwell, Malcolm. (2009). Outliers. Little, Penguin Books.

Hofstede, Geert. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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National and Societal Cultural Factors MatthewW9 MatthewW9 0 41 May 1, 2013 by MatthewW9 MatthewW9