Same Problems, Different Solutions

Nationality Trumps Rationality

In a globalized world it is clear that commerce, manufacturing and communication take on standardized forms, but the critical and singular differences remaining between nations, and affecting every aspect of relationships, are rooted in a country’s culture. You can take a Chinese out of China, but often you cannot take China (Chinese culture) out of the Chinese. Many international business failures or global air travel disasters can be traced a cultural dimension known as “Power Distance”, that is the accepted differences in power between classes of people, whereby junior pilots for instance will find it hard to contradict a seasoned pilot who might be making a fatal mistake. When overseas software developers make hard and fast promises that turn out to be wrong, somebody without experience did not make sure that all parameters and terms were clearly understood.

Even on the domestic side, multinational corporations have to deal with multiple cultural backgrounds of their employees. Studies show that companies like IBM with their own “corporate cultures” can get defeated by differences in responses to the common issues. Domestic companies, practicing good “diversity” management find the dark side of diverse opinions or input, i.e. conflicting input and solutions to common problems. Multiculturalism and diversity are concepts that have a dual edge. Consensus is certainly more difficult to achieve when strong but diverse individuals hammer out solutions in a conference room or video conference.

It therefore helps to understand the culture with which we deal ahead of time. The Dutch researcher, hired by IBM for this purpose, Geert HOFSTEDE documented in his seminal study the cultural dimensions that separate us. See if you can guess which nation or culture might typically use this personal style of conversational introduction: 1- Hello, my name is A., I have worked for this company for many decades… 2- Hello, my name is Dr. B., I am a physicist, 3- Hello, my name is C., I am senior VP of this company … and 4- Hello my name is Sue, how do you do? (answers at end of this article).

The four principal dimensions (of a total of 6) according to which each nation/culture is ranked are these: a) Power Distance (PDI): this refers to the degree to which people in this society recognize and accept the fact that power is shared unequally; b) Individualism/Collectivism: these recognize the degree to which personal and individual desires and goals take precedence over group goals, or vice versa; c) Femininity versus Masculinity define the degree to which one gender dominates in a society or to which degree gender roles overlap and approach equal standing. Countries with a high score on PDI typically act in collectivist fashion, deferring decision-making to superiors. People will defer to bosses and other authority. A low score indicates that lower level individuals are empowered to engage a certain amount of decision making. The inverse of PDI is Individualism/Collectivism. The highest ranking nation in the world is the US, the most individualistic.  Asian and third world countries typically rank low on this scale, as collectivism is the national mood in most cases. When it comes to “masculinity”, virtually the whole world scores mid to high, with feminine roles relegated to the second tier. Asian countries and third world nations dominate the high scores of Masculinity; Europe and America hover mid-point to slightly above, except for Scandinavian countries. Sweden has the highest rating for Femininity (not to be confused with feminism), i.e.. lowest on the Masculinity scale (not to be confused with feminism) followed closely by Norway (could this have provoked mass killer Anders Breivik’s anger, complaining about foreigners/immigration and the feminization of Europe). Europe generally is moving in the direction of Sweden, passing laws that mandate a certain percentage of government jobs (40% in Norway) and seats on Boards of Directors of public companies for women.

The fourth dimension concerns Uncertainty Avoidance which expresses the degree to which this society expresses anxiety about the unknown, strangers and the future. As expected, Asian, African and Latin countries score high on this dimension, except, surprisingly, China. Although China is a collectivist nation scoring high on PDI, this cultural tradition vests great confidence in authority and expects government to have things under control and provide comfort. This extreme faith in authority and high PDI makes the people accept strong central authority and control, in exchange for security. By extension, these are the ingredients for dictatorial power. Whereas “rules rule” in German society, China’s masters make up the rules along the way. This perhaps explains why China has been so far behind the west in developing laws and institutions that are necessary for democracy and more prosperous citizens, able to work themselves out of poverty through their own efforts, not collective efforts.

Here are the answers to the quiz in the first paragraph: 1) Japan has group identity, usually with a large family and an employer 2) Germans like their acquired professional titles and want to be addressed as such… 3) French employees respect the chain of command, and let others know their rank in that hierarchy 4) Of course Americans are highly individualistic and need no affiliation with company or other group for self-appreciation or identification

Marcel R. Didier is Adjunct Professor in the MBA program of the University of Dubuque where he teaches the subjects of global cultures and organizational behavior. He has held this position since 2008, after an international business career spanning more than 3 decades. In the undergraduate program he teaches international business practices and advanced Spanish literature and culture. He also teaches an Intro to Business class at NICC..….September 3, 2012


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