Cross-cultural studies

“We need a certain amount of humility and a sense of humour to discover cultures other than our own; a readiness to enter a room in the dark and stumble over unfamiliar furniture until the pain in our shins reminds us where things are.”

– Alfons Trompenaars

There are many studies analysing and defining the challenges of cross-cultural management, the most referenced authors being Hofstede and Trompenaars.
Global project managers can consider these dimensions when assigning roles and responsibilities to team members from different country cultures. During the project execution activities, these differences are potential sources of conflict, but can also increase the level of creativity, bringing advantages to the project and reducing group thinking. You should evaluate the information provided in the other knowledge areas using the cross-cultural lenses provided by these dimensions,and form discussion groups to understand how the dimensions can affect your project, and how your project team members fit into the cultural patterns.

In the first chapter of my book, I explain how the cultural dimensions may affect global stakeholders. I illustrate this with real life experiences, and provide one team building exercise that can help project managers to understand how their team members position themselves on the cultural dimensions. The same exercise informs the participants about the cultural dimensions, and how they should respect and value the differences on international teams.

The Collaborative Research for Global Projects at Stanford University defines “Global Projects” as projects that involve participants from multiple societal or cultural systems and/or geo-spatial locations.

In the CRGP website, there is a series of academic sources that can provide a solid basis for any research on the topic:

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner defined a different set of dimensions during their cross-cultural studies, using a database containing more than 30.000 survey results. The following classification shows the main dimensions defined by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (2005) and summarised by Trompenaars and Woolliams (2003).

Universalism versus particularism – The first dimension defines how people judge the behaviours of their colleagues. People from universalistic cultures focus more on rules, are more precise when defining contracts and tend to define global standards for company policies and human resources practices. Within more particularistic national cultures, the focus is more on the relationships; contracts can be adapted to satisfy new requirements in specific situations and local variations of company and human resources policies are created to adapt to different requirements.

Individualism and Communitarianism – This dimension classifies countries according to the balance between the individual and group interests. Generally, team members with individualist mindsets see the improvements to their groups as the means to achieve their own objectives. By contrast, the team members from communitarian cultures see the improvements to individual capacities as a step towards the group prosperity.

Achievement versus ascription – This dimension, presented in Trompenaars studies, is very similar to Hofstede’s power distance concept. People from achievement-oriented countries respect their colleagues based on previous achievements and the demonstration of knowledge, and show their job titles only when relevant. On the other hand, people from ascription-oriented cultures use their titles extensively and usually respect their superiors in hierarchy.

Neutral versus affective – According to Trompenaars, people from neutral cultures admire cool and self-possessed conducts and control their feelings, which can suddenly explode during stressful periods. When working with stakeholders from neutral countries you may consider avoiding warm, expressive or enthusiastic behaviours, prepare beforehand, concentrate on the topics being discussed and look carefully for small cues showing that the person is angry or pleased. People from cultures high on affectivity use all forms of gesturing, smiling and body language to openly voice their feelings, and admire heated, vital and animated expressions.

Specific versus diffuse – Trompenaars researched differences in how people engage colleagues in specific or multiple areas of their lives, classifying the results into two groups: people from more specific-oriented cultures tend to keep private and business agendas separate, having a completely different relation of authority in each social group. In diffuse-oriented countries, the authority level at work can reflect into social areas, and employees can adopt a subordinated attitude when meeting their managers outside office hours.

Human-nature relationship (internal vs external control) – Trompenaars shows how people from different countries relate to their natural environment and changes. Global project stakeholders from internal-oriented cultures may show a more dominant attitude, focus on their own functions and groups and be uncomfortable in change situations. Stakeholders from external-oriented cultures are generally more flexible and willing to compromise, valuing harmony and focusing on their colleagues, being more comfortable with change.

Human-time relationship – Trompenaars identified that different cultures assign diverse meanings to the past, present and future. People in past-oriented cultures tend to show respect for ancestors and older people and frequently put things in a traditional or historic context. People in present-oriented cultures enjoy the activities of the moment and present relationships. People from future-oriented cultures enjoy discussing prospects, potentials and future achievement.

A second division of country cultures is based on the time orientation, in which sequential cultures drive people to do one activity at a time and to follow plans and schedules strictly. People from synchronic cultures can do work in parallel, and follow schedules and agendas loosely, taking the priorities of the individual tasks being performed as a major rule.

Hofstede built his theories after extensive surveys of IBM managers in 64 countries. The studies were later completed by similar surveys in other companies, resulting on five independent dimensions of national culture differences:

  • Power Distance: This dimension classifies countries according to the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above.
  • Individualism and collectivism: This dimension measures the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On individualist societies the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after theirselves and their immediate families. People from more collectivist societies tend to be integrated into strong and cohesive groups, often extended families and good friends that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
  • Masculinity and Femininity: This dimension classifies countries according to the distribution of roles between the genders. In the more masculine countries the degree of gender differentiation is high. Individuals tend to associate men with control, power and material ambition, and women with modesty, tenderness and focus on quality of life. The ideals are economic growth, progress, material success and performance. In the more feminine societies, the level of discrimination and the differentiation between genders tends to be low. Individuals are likely to treat men and women equally, and value the quality of life, human contact and caring for others.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: This dimension reflects the resistance to change and the attitude to taking risks of individuals from different countries. As most projects are elements of change and involve risks, the stakeholder analysis and management activities can certainly be more complete and effective when the national differences are taken into account. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, different from usual. Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of novel and unstructured situations by strict policies and rules, tending to be more emotional. 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 tend to be more contemplative, rarely expressing their emotions.
  • Long-term orientation: Hofstede based his fifth dimension on Confucius, and identified that people from long-term oriented cultures tend to give high importance to values such as persistence towards slow results, thrift, savings and having a sense of shame. Individuals from short-term oriented cultures may aim to achieve quick results and give more attention to personal stability, protecting their reputation and respect for tradition.

Click here to see how two different countries compare, according to Hofstede’s 5 dimensions.

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