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.

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.