In Today's increasingly global work environment, multi-national companies emphasize developing their employees’ cultural intelligence: the ability to understand and adapt to various cultural influences.There are typically ten aspects or “dimensions” that are analyzed, but usually such discussions are limited to decisions about expatriates and global strategies. This is unfortunate because EVERY workplace is a microcosm in which these cultural dimensions are being played out. Perceptive leaders observe and discuss these aspects with employees, and use those insights to coach, counsel, motivate, and engage. Leaders themselves need to be intentionally introspective ensuring they see how their own views impact their decisions about organizational strategy, recruitment, performance management, and succession planning. Ultimately, although these ten dimensions have been popularized in the context of global diversity, their application reaches into the most parochial of organizations. Whether a person’s preferences stem from their place of origin, their upbringing, or merely their unique personality really doesn’t matter; their outlook informs their behaviors which in turn impacts our organizations’ successes or failures.
1 POWER DISTANCE – How comfortable you are with inequalities of authority?Although western democracies generally skew to the lower end of the power distance scale, therefore revering leaders who adopt a participative management style, specific individuals may differ as to how they view leadership. Employees who prefer low power distance will respond well to the down-to-earth, I’m-one-of-you type of leader and will be engaged by requests for their feedback and participation. Those preferring higher power distance may question the credibility of a leader who admits to a lack of knowledge and see participative management skeptically as a sign of a leader’s incompetence, insecurity, or, worse yet, as an attempt to shirk responsibility. Employees’ feelings about power distance can have wide-ranging impacts on their willingness to engage in problem-solving, their responses in training discussions, their willingness to accept proffered offers of autonomy, and even the extent to which they take responsibility for their own career development.
2 TIME - Hallmark of responsibility or casualty of chance?In many people’s minds, time management is tied to respect. To some, a commitment to be somewhere or have something completed by a certain time is sacrosanct, and, aside from a genuine, rare emergency, failure to live up to such commitments is perceived as either disrespect or incompetence—both fatal to a professional reputation. To others, the failure to abide by a time commitment may seem a reasonable and even laudable choice if a more pressing circumstance has intruded upon plans made prior to encountering the allegedly more significant need (like the need of someone with higher claims of relationship on the employee). Thus, people may argue as to who is the better time manager: the one who slavishly adheres to prior plans regardless of changed circumstances or the one who constantly re-prioritizes based on new information?
3 EMOTIONS – Neutral or demonstrative?While some cultures are stereotypically tight-lipped (example: British), and others are effusive in their body language (example: Italian), individuals within each such culture may exhibit the opposite traits. Misunderstanding the communication style of an employee can lead to harsh judgments ranging from the cold, arrogant, apathetic perception of someone who tries to keep their emotions in check to the perception of the more affective employee as being shallow, silly, overly dramatic, and possibly even mentally unstable.
4 HIGH-LOW CONTEXT – To what extent are you clear in what you say?China may well be the world’s most intensely high-context culture, meaning that directness and clarity are generally deemed less important than diplomacy and saving face. But you don’t need to be familiar with the Chinese culture to know that regardless of national origin, some people are just more direct than others. Those preferring low context interactions are likely to view directness as refreshingly easy to understand, honest and forthright, and consider candid conversations as respectful because of the unwillingness to equivocate. These employees will likely readily engage in debate and not be put off by the occasional gruff comment. Whereas those employees who skew toward the high context range may speak little or deliberately be unclear in order to avoid what they perceive as unpleasantness. An employee may even be deliberately unclear in providing instructions to a colleague lest they offend by over-explaining or by not informing a supervisor of important information out of a desire not to disappoint.
5 UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE – How comfortable are you with risk?Some people avoid the unknown like the plague while others take the plunge willingly. At each extreme, we have one person hesitantly counseling to “measure twice, cut once” while another person screams “nothing ventured, nothing gained” as they launch hopefully into the void. One group engages in exhaustive calculation, ultimately utilizing every risk avoidance strategy they can, while the other hurries into action lest the fleeting window of opportunity passes. This distinction points out the dangers of both misperception of team mates (fearful versus reckless) and true mismanagement of resources (needless loss versus costly hoarding).
6 APPROPRIATENESS – How certain are you there is one right way to do things?It is said that travel broadens the mind. This is primarily because travel challenges the notion that there is only one right way of doing things. Sometimes called “tight and loose,” this aspect of culture considers the extent to which an individual believes that there is only one (or at least a limited) number of ways that are appropriate to act or think. Whether such rigidity stems from life experience, religious conviction, or egocentric quirk really doesn’t matter; extremes in either direction can be problematic for teamwork. Those who are “tight” will have difficulty getting out of their proverbial comfort zones and thinking outside of their norms. They likely will take strong stands on issues others may think peripheral such as dress codes and intercommunication cues. Those who skew toward “loose,” however, may come across as lackadaisical, valueless, apathetic, or possibly cowardly if their openness is perceived as unwillingness to risk confrontation.
7 FAIRNESS – Always equal or should exceptions be made?All human beings seem to have an instinctive desire to live and work in communities where fairness prevails, but how they view fairness differs. Some employees lean toward what is called a “universalist” outlook, characterized by statements like “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” They prefer, often to the point of demanding, the consistent enforcement of policies. They are fearful that making exceptions will decimate precedent and allow a slippery slope of subjective judgements. Such employees are highly skeptical and may presuppose discrimination or favoritism where variations exist. To employees more open to exceptions, the “always equal” group can appear puritanical, mechanistic, and unfeeling. In reality, their focus is often extremely well meaning, seeing themselves as the protectors of the long-term stability and reassurance that consistent enforcement of rules provides. In contrast, those employees called “particularistic” see distinctions in circumstances and roles within organizations and are more apt to argue that “given the circumstances,” different results are appropriate so long as other values of the organization are upheld. This group may tend to underestimate the genuine dangers of less stringent application of the rules and fail to insert safeguards to prevent unrestrained subjective enforcement.
8 LOYALTY – To thine own self or to others be true?Sometimes called “individualistic” and “collectivist,” this cultural distinction asks whose interests should prevail when there is conflict? Are the needs and desires of the individual to be protected and advanced as the ultimate expression of logical instinct? Or is the good of the group – or at least the group of which an individual feels a part – more important? There is no question that some people view personal happiness, the ability to make their own decisions, and the ability to pursue their own satisfaction and development as the ultimate good of life. They view with skeptical eye any structure or policy that would constrain individuality and freedom. Other employees, however, feel a strong call to consider and involve family members or others in decisions that may impact them, even if only peripherally. This distinction manifests itself in a variety of ways including an individualistic employee’s insistence that their viewpoint be heard, that their ideas be respected, and that their desired career plan be accommodated. This seemingly selfish approach is justified, however, in the persuasive argument that happy, satisfied employees are more productive. In contrast, the more collective-leaning employee may quietly spearhead dramatic team-based results while still appearing less driven and engaged. They may, therefore, be overlooked as a leadership candidate because they are seen as always deferring to others. Because an employee with a strong sense of loyalty to a particular group also tends to make exceptions, they may be tempted to favor members of their group such as with nepotism or fudging the truth to protect those to whom they feel closest or those they think the system is treating unfairly.
9 COMPETITION – Motivating or nauseating?Often impacted by loyalty, this dimension considers whether competition is a motivating factor for an individual. Those who rate high respond well to incentive initiatives that put them in direct contest with others where their individual abilities can be exploited. They get gratification in knowing they possess skills or exhibit behaviors that are superior to others, although many can also readily acknowledge the proficiency of others’ abilities. Meanwhile, those at the opposite end of the scale, sometimes called “cooperative,” tend to be put off by the individualistic displays of showmanship inherent in competition and prefer a more symbiotic collaboration in which members’ strengths are utilized for the betterment of the team. This dimension not only impacts rewards and recognitions, but can also impact how work is divided up – either as team or individual work projects.
10 IDENTITY - Doing or being?
For many, particularly in America, self-esteem is tied to activity, what we do, what we accomplish, and the tangible results we can claim because of our efforts. For those rating on the “doing scale,” one’s identity is often tied to work; we readily acknowledge the importance of jobs and careers in everyone’s lives, including our own. There is great emphasis, therefore, on career development and proper acknowledgement of accomplishments. For those rating high on the “being” scale, although their work ethic may be high, they find their life’s meaning not as much in work as in other aspects of themselves including family involvement, hobby and sports enthusiasm, or their status as a member of a group. People on opposite ends of the scale often perceive each other in unflattering terms – either as a controlling workaholic with no work-life balance or as an apathetic ne’er-do-well. Neither characterization is totally true, but the differences can impact how employees respond toward inconvenient overtime, additional responsibilities, perceived slights, loss of authority, and stalls in upward career progression.
Almost any work-related discussion can be enhanced and improved by the consideration of how one or more of these 10 cultural dimensions are at play. Introspection about one’s own preferences and curiosity about the inclinations of others is key in utilizing these insights in a positive way for your organization and your employees.
J. Lenora Bresler is a leadership and engagement speaker, author, trainer, and coach. She is the founder of Bresler Training, LLC., whose motto is “creating the best leaders, teams, and relationships on earth.” She is the author of several books including “Instant Insight: 15 Questions to Great Relationships” available at www.jlenorabresler.com.