With the intensification of global work environments there arises more and more of a need to appreciate the finer differences of the sociological and anthropological dimensions of human behavior as encompassed by the word culture. Cultural differences encountered while working with people from different parts of the world is now almost the main element of career success.
In my opinion the real key here is to understand, that each and every culture has two dimensions – the overt and the covert. Understanding the overt might be easy but understanding the covert requires active listening, acute observation and a great deal of patience, not necessarily traits that can be developed if nonexistent on an acquired basis. Let us understand the differences between these dimensions.
The overt culture consists of established behavioral patterns that can be explicitly identified and studied, and, hence, are relatively easy to understand.
When we talk about overt or surface culture, we refer to the tangible things that are related to and unique to an ethnic group. The customs and practices carried out by each unique group become associated with them and when they are mentioned. In our minds they automatically trigger the cultural nomenclature. Associated with surface culture are the arts and crafts, intellectual achievements, historic events, spirituality and daily living.
The surface or overt layer of culture has the following manifestations – visible expressions, dress code, the work environment, benefits, perks, conversations, work/life balance, titles & job descriptions, organizational structure and relationships.
Covert culture is much more subtle, but regulates one’s daily life more vigorously but unconsciously. Learning how to talk and walk, how to move one’s body and make facial expressions, and most of all, how to think and feel, is so deeply ingrained in humans that they are rarely aware of these processes. Certain long- established institutions (e.g., schooling) and daily behaviors are taken for granted. Every culture has its unique, deep-rooted dimensions that become entrenched in the human brain (Hall 1977).
Thus far more powerful aspects of cultures are invisible. The cultural core is composed of the beliefs, values, standards, paradigms, worldviews, moods, internal conversations, and private conversations of the people that are part of the group. This is the foundation for all actions and decisions within a team, department, or organization.
The covert or invisible core layer of culture are basic values, private conversations (with self or confidants), invisible rules, attitudes, beliefs, world views, moods and emotions, unconscious interpretations, standards, paradigms and assumptions.
This is what makes global work cultures so very complex. The resulting challenges to the management of global human resources is enormous.
In the light of this these it is worthwhile to review Hofstede taxonomy:
Hofstede theorized and researched five different cultural dimensions and stated that there are wide differences in both the overt and covert national cultures. Yet in the workplace people from distinctly different cultures have to work together. Now lets consider the Hofstede taxonomy.
Here are Hofstede’s five dimensions:
Power Distance Index (PDI) that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. Power and inequality, of course, are extremely fundamental facts of any society and anybody with some international experience will be aware that ‘all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others’.
Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are inte-grated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The word ‘collectivism’ in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one, regarding all societies in the world.
Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found. The IBM studies revealed that (a) women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values; (b) men’s values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and maximally different from women’s values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to women’s values on the other. The assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine’. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.
Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it ultimately refers to man’s search for Truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, different from usual. Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth; ‘there can only be one Truth and we have it’. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions.
Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation: this fifth dimension was found in a study among students in 23 countries around the world, using a questionnaire designed by Chinese scholars It can be said to deal with Virtue regardless of Truth. Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’. Both the positively and the negatively rated values of this dimension are found in the teachings of Confucius, the most influential Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 B.C.; however, the dimension also applies to countries without a Confucian heritage. After studying and contemplating the Hofstede thesis what follows is a practical enunciation of five major cultural differences that are universal across global cultures that affect work behavior.
The difference between individual effort and team effort – in many countries because of the scarcity of resources immense competitiveness exists and individual effort and recognition is what is sought. In other countries, because of changing work patterns, collaboration and teamwork and the ability to work together is more valued than individual skill and knowledge. In such cultures one has to impart, cooperate, collaborate, coach and overall look out for the good of the group or organization.
The second major difference is in the subtle communication patterns. In certain countries communication styles are more direct – ask a question and give an answer. In certain other countries from the very childhood people are taught to watch what they say, therefore, not to always tell people what is in their minds. People tell each other what they perceive other people want to hear. In these cultures people convey hidden meanings, avoid confrontation, are extremely polite and do not tell others what their true concerns are. Thus problems are hidden. Activities get conducted in round about ways without going through a direct route. In certain cultures confrontation is regarded as impoliteness. But in other cultures confrontation is organized and celebrated. The Intel culture was built around, “constructive confrontation”. Thus in corporate cultures more informal communication opportunities should be created. Formal and informal social gatherings should be encouraged. Long formal work meetings should be avoided. Half the people attending such meetings do not say a word, thus formal meetings are a waste of time. Create dialogue programs, like performance dialogues and not performance appraisals.
The concept of time varies from culture to culture. In certain cultures deadlines, time commitments, delivery on schedule are not of value. Look at Hofstede’s LTO factor. In other cultures being on time is of utmost importance. This element alone causes the most amount of angst in the global workplace. Certain cultures take a longer view of their lives and certain other cultures time is of the essence. Do it now or perish.
In certain parts of the world there are many immediate swings in attitudes, behaviors, wants and desires. In certain other countries people move a slower pace thus creating longer term cycles for most things. In some countries situations are taken philosophically, attributing work situations to the will of the Almighty. Nothing wrong with this, if only one accepts workplace cultural differences. In other parts of the world procrastination is seen as a sign of weakness and disorganization.
The workplace implications of this discourse are many. But awareness and sensitivity to our differences is the first step in devising ways to work in the global environment.
Everyone aspiring to bigger and greater in the global work arena should first judge for themselves where they stand in these attributes and through a professionally developed (with value-added advise provided a coach) individual career plan create a work success journey.