The “Japanese Miracle” & “Culture’s Consequences”: Cross-Cultural Research Gains Ground

Imagine your country is number one.

Number one in economic growth.

That’s what Japan was experiencing between the end of WWII and the Cold War.

While the country was still behind the United States, it became the world’s second-largest economy after its defeat in WWII.

Termed the “Japanese Miracle,” Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman were so interested in this economic boom that they wrote a book about it.

In Search of Excellence was written in the early ‘80s. It concluded that the Japanese outperformance of the Americans in terms of growth was due to differences in culture.

Culture and cultural studies were finally becoming a focal point to more than only those who studied social sciences. Big corporate CEOs were starting to see cross-cultural research as a tool for success in business.

Culture’s Consequence

In walks Hofstede.

As we discussed last week, Hofstede had discovered differences in culture while analyzing the outcomes of a company-wide survey for IBM.

In doing so, he offered the first scientifically-founded analysis of cultural differences in the workplace.

In 1980, he also published a book, Culture’s Consequences. By the turn of the century, Hofstede’s work had been cited more than 2000 times, with no empirical work as influential in the fields of psychology or culture.

According to Hofstede’s research, nations differed in four cultural dimensions.

The dimensions denoted sets of values, scaled from one extreme to the other. After surveying the populous of various cultures, each nation was valued between these two poles.

One dimension involved “Uncertainty Avoidance” – to what degree a culture’s members are comfortable/uncomfortable in unknown, surprising, or situations that differed from their cultural norm.

This dimension suggests which cultures maintain tradition and fear change and which are open to risk-taking and innovation.

The dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance was discovered when Hofstede looked at the survey’s responses to questions about work-related stress.

An example of a work-related question in the survey:

How often do you feel nervous or tense at work?

Answers ranged from “I never feel this way” to “I always feel this way.”

Another correlating question asked whether one should break company rules if doing so was in the best interest of the company.

Further, employees were asked if they had long-term plans to stay with the company.

The Results

The survey found that some cultures appreciated change, and these were the same cultures that were less affected by stress.

Those cultures that avoided change and were more affected by stress were often also more bound by rituals, laws, bureaucracy, and tradition.

For example, Latin American cultures are layered in procedures and rules and are considered “uncertainty avoiding” cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk about more of the dimensions discovered by Hofstede.

Hofstede and IBM: the Beginning of Significant Cross-Cultural Research

If you looked at Geert Hofstede‘s life, there was nothing particularly remarkable that might make you imagine he’d one day be at the forefront of cross-cultural research.

The Dutch researcher called the Netherlands home. He lived and studied there, after which he entered the military.

He became a management trainer at IBM, as well as the manager of staff research. It was in the latter role that he became entrenched in systematic research which would later hone in on the field of cross-cultural studies.

International Employee Opinion Research Program

In his role as manager of staff research, IBM’s International Employee Opinion Research Program became Hofstede’s brainchild.

Hofstede and his colleagues gathered and analyzed over 116,000 survey questionnaires over six years. The questionnaires were collected from 72 countries and involved 183 questions about the work environment, completed by IBM employees.

Providing a number of options, questionnaires asked employees to choose which option was the most important to them.

An example:

Which is most important to you?

  1. A job that allows personal/family time
  2. Challenging work that provides a sense of accomplishment
  3. Freedom to adapt your approach to work

Employees could choose their preference and, although the word “culture” wasn’t used in any context by IBM staff, and they weren’t charged with researching cross-cultural differences, nevertheless, the data revealed various patterns of cultural opinion and behavior.

Still, no cultural opinions were drawn from the data at the time.

Hofstede’s Findings

Taking a sabbatical from IBM, Hofstede taught at the IMD in Switzerland. It was there that he was allowed the time and academic engagement to analyze the IBM research.

He found that nationality could account for the behavioral differences resultant in the survey.

In order to test his theory, he questioned folks from various countries who didn’t work for IBM.

It became clear that cultural differences were there. 

The value of Hofstede’s research was lost on many for a while…it was lost even on him.

He had no idea what a significant gold mine he’d come across, from the standpoint of international business.

At the time, economic success was not dependent on cultural sensitivities. The United States was the number one unchallenged economic power.

As to the matter, Hofstede said:

“In the 1970s I was living in Brussels when I started developing my ideas of culture and I approached the European Commission about this, but found myself initially directed to an official who was responsible for museums! Such was their idea of culture!”

But all this changed in the ‘80s and beyond – a period which we’ll talk more about next week.

Cultural Values: What Divides Us? What Defines Us?

Values are at the core of cross cultural research.

In the 2011 abstract, The Value of Values in Cross-Cultural Research, authors Ariel Knafo, PhD, Sonia Roccas, PhD, and Lilach Sagiv, PhD, note that, “The centrality of values in cross-cultural research has more than doubled over the last three decades.”

This, according to their review, is because values are what define us, individually, and shape us, culturally.

“At the individual level,” the authors write, “values express broad, trans-situational motivational goals, affecting individuals’ interpretation of situations, preferences, choices, and actions. At the national level, values reflect the solutions groups develop in response to existential challenges and relate to the way social institutions function.”

And this is what distinguishes each individual’s values and each nation’s values from any other.

What Divides Us?

In cross cultural research, cultures are often divided according to particular sets of values.

Need an example?

Picture1

This world map, compiled by Ronald Inglehard and Christian Welzel in their article, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy,” differentiates the values of secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

What are these value sets?

  • secular-rational values – prioritize autonomy, secularism, rationality, and cosmopolitanism
  • traditional values – prioritize religion, obedience, national pride, and respect for authority
  • survival values – prioritize survival, due to its insecurity
  • self-expression values – prioritize free choice

This illustrates, as we’ve discussed in past posts, that not only do nations and individuals have sets of values, but other tightly-knit groups or subcultures – e.g. Catholics, Protestants, Confucians, Muslims, English-speakers, etc. – share core values, as well.

While many nations fit within these groupings, they slide on a spectrum of core values, depending upon how strict or lenient they are regarding secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

For instance, Spain and Croatia are pretty much smack dab in the middle of both crossroads. And as you might notice when visiting these two countries, survival and self-expression values coexist fairly harmoniously, as do traditional and secular-rational values.

However, if you visit any of the Nordic countries (particularly, Sweden), you will find their cultural values are on the far end of self-expression, as well as secular-rationalism. Someone from a nation with traditional or survivalist values – like Zimbabwe, Morocco, or Pakistan, for instance – might have a hard time integrating into cultures on the extreme end of self-expression and secularism.

What Defines You?

So, how much do our nation’s values influence our own? To what extent do the values of the subcultures we belong to impact us? And what values are we choosing individually?

We’ve discussed how important parental values are in defining the values of children during the stages of primary socialization. These are often some of the most deeply-rooted within a human being. Parents are the moral compasses of a family – and, essentially, of a society.

Cultural values might reinforce this compass or distort it, depending upon whether a child’s parents go with the tide or against it. But, essentially, an individual’s value compass is magnetized at home, after which the magnetic pull of their culture and subculture may offset it from due north. In this way, each of us is a unique cross-breed of family and society.

And this is what defines us.

Next week, we’ll talk about one of the standards by which these values are magnetized: cultural norms.