Understanding Other Cultures: 5 Dimensions of Culture

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THE GLOBAL ENTREPRENEUR | CULTURE

We live in a turbulent world. And this world is highly interconnected. People can interact with each other with no regard for geographical distance. Corporates can gain access to talents from countries in another continent.

With increased diversity comes a huge list of cultural lessons to learn.

In order to thrive in such an environment, it is important that global managers familiarize themselves with learning models and frameworks that enable them to understand and navigate through all of the complexities and uncertainties of working across borders.

These uncertainties arose due to the vast differences in management practices, business processes, and cultural values around the world.

understanding other cultures

These differences aren’t one-dimensional. They are a product of history, psychology, language, and even geography. People in different countries behave in the way they do because they grow in a culture that condition them to do so.

When working with people from other cultures, or growing your business in an entirely new country whose culture differs from your, it is crucial that you have a framework to develop your cultural understanding.

We can’t understand a culture by aimlessly asking people around us questions. We must have a system to base our understanding on.

Several researchers have attempted to capture the essence of cultural differences – and similarities – by dividing culture into dimensions. Each dimension is a distinct aspect of culture that provides us with information about how people in that culture behave.

These “cultural models” offer us a method to compare cultures, analyze them, and grade them on a scale from 1 to 10. If applied properly, these frameworks also help managers navigate through the cultural differences in the organization.

Below is 5 dimensions of culture that many researchers agree on:

understanding other cultures: 5 dimensions of culture

This model answers 5 important questions:

1) How are power and authority distributed in a society? Is it based on a hierarchy or egalitarianism?

2) Do people have a tendency to base their identity on the communities they are in or on their inner values?

3) Do people wish to master their surroundings or live in harmony with it?

4) Do people approach time in a linear (one thing at a time) or non-linear (everything at once) manner?

5) How do societies reduce uncertainty? Do they control the members through rules, policies, laws, social norms, or through personal relationships and in-group values?

1) Power Distribution

Power is a pie. Once someone gets more of it, someone gets less. It is ever-changing, but the way that power is distributed among members of societies determine its culture.

Typically, there are 2 modes of distribution: Centralized and Decentralized.

Centralized distribution is the belief that power should be distributed hierarchically across society. Each person is assigned a definite position in society based on their family, social status, and they have to rise through the ranks in their life.

Hierarchical societies also believe in ascribed or inherited power. Ultimate authority resides in national institutions. Communities from large to small are organized vertically, in which the people on top hold the most power. This power is then distributed top-down. The lower you are down the ranks, the less power you hold.

The people on top also have the authority to make decision, and the people in the lower ranks follow suit. Authority’s decisions are generally accepted, and people are reluctant to question them.

Hierarchical societies are clear-cut and easy to understand. However, as information has to flow from the top to the bottom, it can take awhile for information to reach the right person.

On the other hand, decentralized societies believe that power should be distributed relatively equally across members of society and communities. These are “egalitarian” societies. They believe in shared or elected power, in which elected representatives are only a realization of the people’s will and power.

Organizations are structured horizontally. Decision making in egalitarian societies are decentralized, which means that people prefer voting to choose who is best qualified. People tend to reject or have a certain sense of skepticism against authority, and are ready to question the decisions of those in power.

A typical country that pursue egalitarianism is Finland. Many Finnish laws are based on the principle of equity (which is inherently different from the concept of equality). Finland, as well as many Nordic countries, have progressive taxation and progressive punishment.

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2) Social Relationships

The nature of social relationships has been observed in many cultural models. This is usually expressed in terms of culture being more individualistic and collectivistic.

It is about whether members of a society see themselves first and foremost as individuals or members of a group. Do they based their identity on their inner values, their own efforts, achievements, and experience, or on the groups they are associated with?

Do they prioritize personal goals or community goals?

Do groups/communities/societies encourage personal responsibility or conformity?

Is individual or group decision making preferred?

Are business deals done based on written contracts or personal relationships?

Is communication low-context (which means that the message is straightforward with no hidden meaning), or high-context (which means that you must take into consideration the context surrounding the message to understand it fully) ?

If most of your answers are the former, then the culture is highly individualistic, and vice versa, if most of your answers are the latter then it is highly collectivistic.

An understanding of social relationships in a culture is essential for global managers. For example, if you want to develop an incentive system for your employees, you can consider if they are individual-oriented or group-oriented. Emphasizing participatory decision making in a highly collectivistic culture is a good strategy, but not so much in an individualistic culture. It is the job of a global manager to develop administrative practices that support local customs, social norms, and traditions.

3) Environmental Relationships

Most societies have a shared view with respect to their relationship to the environment around them. They either seek to control and master their surroundings or live in relative peace and harmony with it.

We shouldn’t understand the term “master the environment” in the sense of “destroying the natural resources”. Rather, it implies that these societies emphasize the pursuit of goals and possessions.

Mastery-oriented societies are assertive, proactive, “masculine”. They want to bend nature to conform to their view. This society stresses extrinsic rewards such as material possessions and symbols of achievement.

Harmony-oriented societies are more passive and reactive. They value rewards built upon seniority and positions within the organization. This society wants to live in harmony with the environment around them. They are more modest, simple, and strive to achieve quality of life by working towards social progress and the well-being of the common.

Similar to the knowledge of social relationships, managers can also base their incentive systems on the understanding of environmental relationship. Employees in mastery-oriented culture prefer having challenges and personal incentives rather than communal incentives. Meanwhile, employees from harmony-oriented cultures are more responsive to participative leadership.

Managers can tailor their leadership style to fit the situation and orientations of their employees based on this.

Cultures have varying notions about time and punctuality. In some, time is a limited resource that one should use and allocate wisely. In others, time is seen as an ample resource, and one should not rush, but rather go with the flow.

In cultures that have a strict view on time, people tend to use time in an unstructured way without any specific time-table. Organization skills, order, structure, and good planning is a sign of respect.

On the other hand, in cultures that don’t value punctuality high, people are considerably more relaxed and placed much higher importance on relationship building than being quick and efficient.

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4) Time/work patterns

Here we have to make a distinction between monochronic and polychronic.

People in monochronic culture tend to be methodical in their use of time and their approaches to tasks. They believe that time is valuable. When presented with a multitude of tasks, they will prioritize them based on urgency and deal with them one-by-one.

By comparison, people in polychronic cultures tend to be more flexible and spontaneous in their use of time. They don’t have rigid deadlines, but rather stretchy ones. They tend to have fluid schedules where personal lives and professional lives are sometimes entangled.

To find out whether someone, or some culture, is monochronic or polychronic, ask yourself: do they have a precise concept of time? Are they punctual? Are they more committed to their jobs than their family and friends? Do they separate work and family live or see them as an integrated whole? Do they take a linear or non-linear approach to planning?

5) Uncertainty

This is the final dimension of our cultural model. Uncertainty is inherent in any group dynamics. If we are let free to do whatever we want, we might ironically end up not knowing what to do and where to go, which is known as “the paradox of choice”. This is because we sometimes don’t know what’s best for us, so we need a reference point to know that we’re behaving properly.

Rule-based (or universalistic) cultures believe that social values and standards take precedence over individual needs. Rules are universal and applicable to everyone subject to the scope of those rules. On the other hand, relationship-based (particularistic) cultures also have rules and standards that everyone must follow, but sometimes exceptions for family, friends, and personal connections can be made, although those decisions are against the rules.

Rule-based cultures eliminate uncertainty by being extremely clear-cut about what should and should not be done, while relationship-based cultures do that by using a form of “influence” such as parents, superiors, government officials to control society. Formal rules are flexible based on the level of connection of the people involved in the situation have.

In general, the level of formality in universalistic culture is much higher than particularistic cultures. In particularistic ones, the more connections and social relationships you have, the easier it is for them to bypass the rigidness of the law.

Conclusion

Taken together, these 5 cultural dimensions have provided us with invaluable insights into how a culture and its people work, and consequently, how a business and organization in that culture is conducted.

One should however take note that this is still an oversimplified version of the concept of “culture”. There are a lot of other cultural aspects that are too specific to be formalized into a one-size-fits-all model. The model above is merely a quick introduction into how culture can be understood, yet it is still very useful for global managers who want to investigate into the differences between countries.

Feel free to share your thoughts on how we can better understand the nature of a country’s culture in the comment section below. We are excited to hear inputs from experts and people with experience!

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