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Firstly, culture can be defined as; a perceived truth (rather than reality) about a group and its members regarding their beliefs, values, attitudes and norms of behaviour, which have evolved from a common history, collective knowledge and similar conditioning. Culture is strongly influenced by race, religion, political and social structures and the geographical and physical environment. Culture manifests as etiquette, communication style, the arts, groupthink, symbols, traditions, behaviour patterns, shared ideas, common ideals and a way of life.

A few definitions to make sure you and I are thinking similarly;

Reality: What is! …or as the dictionary puts it “real things or the real nature of things rather than imagined, invented or theoretical ideas”.

Truth: A narrow perspective on reality developed as a result of the accident of the place and time of our birth, reinforced by those who seek an ally to support and perpetuate their own version of the ‘truth’. The dictionary defines truth as ‘all the facts… rather than that, which is imagined or invented’.

Beliefs: Faith in a set of learnt ‘truths’ formed as a result of our indoctrination by the influential when we are to young to resist, or if you prefer the dictionary definition, ‘a feeling of certainty that something exists, is true or is good (or bad)’.

Values: A subjective point of view regarding the worth of our beliefs and the worth of the assumed or perceived beliefs, values and attitudes of those we view or interact with, based on our own narrow perspective. Once again the dictionary, “the values of a person or group are the moral principles and beliefs that they think are important”.

Attitudes: Personal opinion governing rules of behaviour we think we can get away with when dealing with others from whom we are taking, or to whom we are giving, in the interests of our personal wellbeing. The dictionary ‘the way that you (or others) think and feel about something, especially when it shows in the way you (or others) behave’.

Perhaps you could see these definitions as a little cynical however when we get into the motivational theories and ‘motivational rules’ later in this chapter you may change your mind and agree with the thinking.

To understand what is happening with cultural influences perhaps the following ‘cultural iceberg’ will shed some further light. The iceberg is made up of the above factors and is shown below.  


Behaviours: the way we do or say things and the things we are prepared to do or say. The bit we see above the waterline!



Attitudes: a stance we take and how a we feel and what we think (based on our values) regarding situations and individuals and our interactions between the environment and other people



Values: a set of moral standards or rules (based on our beliefs) that govern they way we make judgements regarding the goodness or badness of factors in our environment and that influence what we set as the norms of a correct existence.



Beliefs: an unquestioning view on how things should be and what is important based on our cultural assumptions and the ‘truth’ of our existence as a social being that we consciously or subconsciously buy in to.


Cultural assumptions: ‘the truth’ regarding our existence and our place in the world inherited and reinforced through indoctrination (usually at an early age) and based on the history and traditions of our predecessors.


Remember as a manger (or for that matter as a human being) that you can only see what is above the waterline and that your actions and influence will only at best encourage or discourage behaviours. Perhaps if you are extremely effective you may (and should) change attitudes, however it is almost impossible and would be foolhardy to attempt to change another’s Cultural Assumptions, Beliefs or Values. You just don’t have the time to invest.  

In the 1980’s Geert Hofstede came up with four contrasting dimensions that influenced how people from different nationalities behaved at work. Based on studies of over 116,000 workers in 50 countries he found that people where inclined towards four fundamental dimensions, SMALL v’s LARGE POWER DISTANCE (minimal status differences v’s wide gap between those in power and the ‘followers’), INDIVIDUALISM v’s COLLECTIVISM, (my interests take priority v’s the groups wellbeing takes priority), MASCULINITY v’s FEMININITY (no sexism intended), (assertive, quantity v’s caring quality of life) and LOW v’s HIGH UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE (risk is OK v’s safety first tendencies). He later added the fifth dimension of SHORT TERM versus LONG TERM orientation.

Hofstede’s dimensions and a few of the consequences;

Power distance, that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power be distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that the followers endorse a society’s level of inequality as much as the leaders’ back it’.

Small Power Distance

Large Power Distance

Inequality is ‘bad’ and best avoided and everyone has equal rights and interdependence exists between less and more powerful people.

Parents and children treat each other as ‘equals’ and teachers develop students’ initiative and are experts who transfer impersonal truths.

Hierarchy in organizations means an inequality of roles established for convenience and decentralization is popular.

Subordinates expect to be consulted and the ideal boss is a competent democrat.

Local management theories focus on role of employees.

Managers’ privileges and status symbols are frowned upon.

Skills, wealth, power, and status need not go together and power is based on formal position, expertise and the ability to give rewards and the use of power should be legitimate and is subject to criteria of good and evil.

Inequality is natural and desired and the powerful have privileges and less powerful people should be dependent on the more powerful.

Parents teach obedience and children show respect and teachers are expected to take initiative and are gurus who transfer personal wisdom.

Hierarchy in organizations reflects a natural state of human inequality and centralization is popular.

Subordinates expect to be told what to do; the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat, good father.

Local management theories focus on role of managers.

Managers’ privileges and status symbols are expected/popular.

Skills, wealth, power, and status should go to together and power is based on association with powerful individuals, charisma and the ability to use force; might prevails over right; whoever holds the power is right and good.  

Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are integrated 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) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.



Everyone grows up to look after him/herself and his/her immediate (nuclear) family only, with identity is based in the individual who in turn thinks 'I'

Speaking one's mind is a characteristic of an honest person regardless of the situation or circumstances.

The purpose of education is learning how to learn and academic qualifications increase economic worth and self-respect.

Relationship employer/employee is a contract supposed to be based on mutual advantage.

Hiring and promotion decisions are supposed to be based on competence and rules only.

Management is of individuals, task prevails over relationship and individual interests prevail over collective interests.

Everyone has a right to privacy and is expected to have a private

Ideologies of individual freedom prevail over those of equality and an individual’s self-actualisation (fulfilment) is an ultimate goal.


People are born into extended families that protect them in exchange for loyalty; identity is based in ones social network and individuals think ‘we’.

Harmony should be maintained and direct confrontations are avoided, there are times when nothing should be said.

Purpose of education is learning how to do and qualifications are seen as important to provide entry to higher status groups.

Relationship employer/employee is perceived in moral terms, like a family link.

Hiring, and promotion decisions take employees' in-group into account

Management is management of groups, relationship prevails over task and collective interests prevail over individual interests.

Private life is invaded by group and opinions predetermined by group membership.

Ideologies of equality prevail over those of individual freedom and harmony and consensus in society are ultimate goals.

Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. It ultimately refers to a persons search for truth and indicates to what extent members feel either comfortable or uncomfortable in unstructured, novel, unknown, surprising or different from usual situations. Individuals from uncertainty accepting cultures are more tolerant of differing opinions; they try to have as few rules as possible. People within these cultures are more matter-of-fact, thoughtful and reflective and not expected by others in their environment to express emotions’. The opposite type uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures and tend to believe in one absolute truth’; 'there can only be one truth and we have it'. ‘People in uncertainty avoiding cultures are also more emotional and motivated by inner nervous energy’.

Low Uncertainty Avoidance

High Uncertainty Avoidance

Socialized, calm acceptance of the unknown, risk taking is accepted and often seen as desirable.

Tolerance is shown toward those with differing opinions and standards of behaviour and individual or group differences or beliefs are not seen as a threat.

Individuals feel relatively safe and secure and time focus is now and the future.

Relationship with the environment is domination or harmony and individual activity is about doing or controlling.

People are seen as either good or a mixture of good and bad and individuals or groups see themselves as responsible for their own wellbeing.

Space is seen as private or a mixture of public and private.

Empowerment is accepted and initiative is shown and mistakes are seen as learning.

Individual/group stress and aggressiveness induced by anxiety about an uncertain future.

Low tolerance for deviant ideas/ behaviour, formal rules and mechanisms to reduce risk and members strive to believe in a common set of absolute truths.

Individuals feel relatively threatened and time focus is the past and now.

Relationship with the environment is subjugation or at best harmony and individual activity is about being.

People are seen as evil or at best a mixture of good and bad and the group or the hierarchy determines wellbeing.

Space is public.

Instructions are sought, responsibility avoided and mistakes are seen as ‘sins’ that will exact punishment.

Masculinity versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders. The 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 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.

Masculine Societies

Feminine Societies

Assertiveness is valued.

Money and material gain is desirable.

Sensitivity is valued.  

Relationships and group members’ welfare is paramount.

Long-term 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. The following is my interpretation of the consequences.

Short Term Orientation

Long Term Orientation

Only ‘now’ exists and we should live for now and ourselves.

Consumption and spending is acceptable.

Success is a result of applied intelligence and competence.  face.

The demands of the user or customer are the most important.

Tradition is of little interest.

We should work for the future and for the next generation.

Thrift and saving for the future is a virtue.

Perseverance will ultimately lead to success; failure leads to shame and loss of face.

Following the demands of the hierarchy is desirable.

Tradition is important.

Obviously if you manage/lead, a group of people with a collective attitude, that see you the boss as all-powerful, who value relationships over material gain and that ‘suffer’ from high uncertainty avoidance, they are going to become quite unsettled if you casually announce say, a company, division or department restructure.

Often the culture issue is subtler than obvious ‘national differences’. Perhaps more importantly for those in management are the problems and misunderstandings occur between those that are often seen as integrated groups of one nationality or of one company. For managers, cultural differences between, a sales team, financial control, administration, human resource, production, service, and research & development can cause difficulty and hamper the performance of both the individual and the organization. Cultural diversity and the difficulties associated with this diversity is the subject of much intense debate in many companies. One company for whom I conduct training surveyed their managers to find the areas of their function that created the most operational stress and the results showed interdepartmental cultural differences as a major cause of problems.

Example; you can see why difficulties may occur between members of the research & development department who are interested in ‘long term visions, superior features, safety, the best product for the customer and who talk a lot of technical jargon’, when they are meeting with the finance division who are interested in ‘cost minimization, immediate cash flow, long term profitability and the shareholders who talk using a lot of financial jargon’. Add a representative from sales, ‘market share, need it now, the price has to be more competitive, using sell, sell, sell talk’ and perhaps a HR director, ‘they’re not trained, it’s too much of a strain on the staff and they’ll all leave, who is using long words from the last book he/she read on the psychology of the workplace’ and cultural issues can explode.

As leader/managers with an ever increasing mix of people from different backgrounds combined with ever increasing rates of change and the need for greater levels of specialisation, we all need to spend more time in understanding and managing the cultural differences in our organizations. To help us there are some guides that we should personally adopt and encourage others to embrace.

·         Stereotyping is an intellectually unsound practice

·         No one is an expert in your, culture not even you

·         No one can be an expert on someone else’s culture

·         Don’t make assumptions about people, ask questions

·         Never try to tell someone about their culture… ask

·         Moral judgements on a persons value based on culture are best left to the stupid among us

·         Another culture may not be better or worse, just different  

A major point for you to consider…

Generalising about people based on preconceived ideas, cultural background, gender, race, technical or professional disciplines and career choices or on any other basis you can think of has no place in a manager’s mind or heart. Although this chapter offers for your consideration a number of ideas based on research and to some extent categorizes or groups people by such things as cultural predispositions, personality type, or ego states this is done purely to demonstrate the complexity of individuals. As an astute manager you will always need to see people as infinitely complex individuals that have their own hopes, desires and motivations that will be constantly changing as an almost unlimited variety of personal and business situations evolve.  


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Richard Townsend
Corporate Learning Consultant

Copyright Orglearn - Richard Townsend 2008