Building strong bonds

Having made Singapore my home for the last 11 years and worked in many other countries during this period, I am fascinated by the ways people from different countries interact.

It is important to understand how different cultures may see each other and to be aware of the “cultural minefield” that may exist within a large organisation.

The research of Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede has led to greater insights into how different cultures see and understand each other.

Here are the four cultural dimensions in understanding organisational management practices:

1. Individualism-collectivism

This dimension centres on organisational practices in individualistic cultures such as Canada, the United States, Australia and Great Britain contrasted with collectivistic cultures in East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore).

2. Power distance

Low power distance (Canada, US) subscribes to equal power distribution versus high power distance (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong) in hierarchical structures.

3. Uncertainty avoidance

Dr Hofstede found that managers in Canada and the US are low in uncertainty avoidance, that is, they like to take risks, take individual initiative and enjoy conflict.

In contrast, cultures like Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea ranked high in uncertainty avoidance, meaning that they do not like conflict, but pursue group harmony. People within these organisations need clear rules, procedures and clearly defined job responsibilities.

4. Masculinity versus femininity

Dr Hofstede discovered that Japan rated high on masculine dimensions (males expect an “in-charge” role). In contrast, countries like Norway and Sweden have a stronger feminine dimension, which means that roles are more fluid between males and females.

Professor Ting-Toomey and her colleagues, Michael Bond, Harry Triandis and Dr Hofstede consistently found that the individualistic and collectivistic dimension teaches the most about differences between cultures, particularly between East Asian and western cultures.

Individualism and collectivism is connected with the concept of identity, that is, how you see your sense of self? Individualistic cultures emphasise the “I” identity and collectivistic cultures emphasise the “we” identity, which is a fundamental difference between western and eastern cultures.

In individualistic cultures, people tend to be verbally direct: they value communication openness, learn to self-disclose, like to be clear, straightforward and contribute to a positive management climate.

In collectivistic group-oriented cultures, indirect communication is preferred because the image of group harmony is essential. In western cultures, talking is very therapeutic; in Asian cultures, there is an emphasis on observing and reflecting about the process.

Research indicates that several patterns of cultural differences exist:

Communication styles

The way people communicate varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of “yes” varies from “maybe, I’ll consider it” to “definitely so,” with many shades in between.

Attitudes towards conflict

Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. In the US, conflict is not usually desirable but people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that do arise. In contrast, in many Eastern countries, open conflict is perceived as embarrassing or demeaning. As a rule, differences are best worked out quietly.

Approaches to completing tasks

From culture to culture, there are different ways that people move toward completing tasks. Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion towards the end. Europeans and Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task.

Decision-making styles

The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture. For example, in the US, decisions are frequently delegated. This means that an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate. In many southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on holding decision-making responsibilities oneself.

Attitudes toward disclosure

In some cultures, it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Keep this in mind when you are working with others.

Though cultural differences and boundaries do exist, it is my experience that the tie of people’s common humanity binds them together far greater than the divide of their cultural backgrounds.

Article by Chris Fenney, co-founder and director of Training Edge International.