How Does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Stack Up Across Cultures

Management trainings often cut out the cross-cultural nature of leadership expectations, hierarchies, and values and norms.

So, when you’re put into a cross-cultural leadership position, you’re a fish out of water, and you don’t have much to guide you.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”

In Maslow’s theory, human motivation is pretty straight forward.

His “hierarchy of needs” is taught across many business administration curriculums and has been since its inception in the early ’40s.

It was in 1943 that researcher Abraham Maslow identified basic human needs and categorized them in a pyramid.

hierarchy of needs
FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

At the bottom are the most basic physiological needs:

When a person’s most basic human needs are satisfied, their more complex emotional and psychological needs rise to the top:

  • Love/belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-fulfillment/actualization

Think about these needs. Do you feel them in this order and manner?

What A Man Can Be

Maslow once wrote:

“What a man can be, he must be.”

This explains the pyramid in a nutshell: if we can achieve something greater than simply meeting our physiological needs, we will seek it out.

The hierarchy of needs may seem instinctive to the Western mind, so much so that Western managers apply this basic model to motivate their teams and incentivize success.

Self-fulfillment would then be the highest motivation, manifesting itself in power and personal career development.

However, as it turns out, this hierarchy of needs hasn’t stood the cross-cultural test.

Security, Social Needs, & Quality of Life

Let’s take a look at Greece and Japan.

Self-actualization in these countries is undercut by security needs.

According to research done within IBM World Trade Corporation:

“At the country level, higher mean stress turned out to be associated with stronger rule orientation and greater employment stability…When [the mean level of anxiety] is higher, people feel more stressed, but at the same time they try to cope with their anxiety by searching for security.”

Both Japan and Greece had high Uncertainty Avoidance Indexes, which indicate higher stress and anxiety levels.

This is why life-long job security supersedes climbing the corporate ladder or seeking out challenging work in these countries and may be another reason Japanese companies keep on workers even though they may be subpar or their positions could be made redundant.

On the other hand, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark place a lot of emphasis on quality of life, thus building a career takes a back burner to social needs.

Hofstede Disagrees

As Geert Hofstede duly notes:

“My interpretation is that this tells us more about Maslow than about the other countries’ managers. Maslow categorized and ordered his human needs according to the U.S. middle-class culture pattern in which he was embedded himself – he could not have done otherwise.”

This can be said about many studies that unintentionally (or intentionally) discount cross-cultural differences.

Cross-cultural values and norms are not much considered when identifying “human needs.”

Instead, every human is painted with one brush; the brush of whichever culture is doing the research.

Family, Sex & Love: A Look at Humankind’s Social Fabric

From linguistics to archaeology, anthropology is the study of humankind, past and present, and the origin of all cross cultural studies.

Family, sexuality, and love are topics of much interest to anthropologists.

Each of these themes is at the core of humanity.

We’ll cover them in detail over the upcoming weeks.

Why These Topics Matter to Cross-Cultural Management

If you’re coming to this blog for corporate success across cultures, you might think that family and sexual mores don’t apply here.

However, I’d argue that they do for two reasons:

  1. A culture’s social fabric is woven by family structures. By better understanding family-related values and norms, you’ll integrate much more smoothly into a society than if you have no clue about the important roles that family members play.
  2. Sexual mores often evoke the strongest emotional reactions, as these norms are amongst the earliest socialized norms in a culture and are often enforced by religious and social taboos. Awareness of unfamiliar social mores will help you avoid crossing boundaries and keep you clear and well away from those dratted taboos.

In effect, any information about a culture’s values and norms will fortify understanding and help you view a culture through their own lens. Only when you can see from the culture’s perspective can you truly identify with their mentality and integrate cross-culturally.

Family, Sex & Love in Culture

Of these three topics, family structures is one of the more thoroughly researched of all anthropological studies.

The study, Family: Variations and Changes Across Cultures, explains why:

“In order to study psychological phenomena cross-culturally, it is necessary to understand the different types of family in cultures throughout the world and also how family types are related to cultural features of societies.”

Family structures are the blueprint for societal structures. This is why some knowledge of family values and norms will gain you significant headway when managing across cultures.

Sex is also on the mind of many an anthropologist. Although, according to The Cross-Cultural Study of Human Sexuality, “Anthropology has long had a love-hate relationship [with it].”

This is largely due to the own sexual mores of those anthropologists in question. Across many cultures, the topic is seen as taboo or controversial, so sexuality remains a “rarely studied” topic of human experience.

Moreover, love and romance is mixed in with family and sexuality and has been since the dawn of time.

According to Love Across Cultures:

“Although love needs to be framed within a cultural context, many scholars believe that romantic love is transcultural. Elaine Hatfield and Richard L. Rapson (1996) viewed passionate love as common to virtually all cultures, and indeed, romantic love has been found in most countries of the world.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll dissect research on all three topics in more detail, taking a look at remote and predominant cultures, alike, to discover both shared and divergent values and norms in these themes.

Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.

Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.