Insightful Cross-Cultural Analogies: How Hofstede’s Power Distance & Uncertainty Avoidance Aid Understanding

Power distance. Uncertainty avoidance.

We’ve discussed these two dimensions at length in previous posts.

Not only are they stand-alone aspects that aid cross-cultural understanding, but social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, has applied these two dimensions to create cultural analogies that help simplify foreign workplace environments.

Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance Review

These two dimensions relate to workplace behaviors.

Power distance is the degree to which cultures accept and expect the unequal distribution of power amongst members of organizations and institutions.

For instance, those employees in cultures of high power distance will not directly confront a superior; those employees and superiors in cultures of low power distance rely on communication and the consultation of each other, which de-emphasizes the hierarchical nature of status.

Uncertainty avoidance is the measure of acceptance and expectation for unpredictability and chaos in society.

Those cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance have a low tolerance for unpredictability and ambiguity, resulting in rule-oriented, law-abiding societies.

Those cultures with low levels of uncertainty avoidance have a high tolerance for the same, resulting in societies willing to take more risks, tolerate a wider variety of opinions, and not follow rules so strictly.

The Analogies

Arranging these two dimensions on the axes of a matrix, Hofstede produced a set of helpful analogies to better understand the work cultures of the United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France.

monkey_charts_CMYK-14

With its low uncertainty avoidance and low power distance, a typical English company is like a village market, in that it combines risk-taking with flat hierarchies, resulting in the classic entrepreneurial spirit.

Germany also shares the flat workplace hierarchies (low power distance) with the British; however, German culture has a high uncertainty avoidance, making typical German companies efficient and inflexible, more like a “well-oiled machine” or a clock. Rules are strictly followed, with decentralized decision-making and each equally important wheel working together.

The typical French company is described as a “royal court” or “pyramid of people.” The culture is one of high power distance, where everyone knows their place and decision-making is centralized. They also share high uncertainty avoidance with the Germans, meaning rules are strictly followed, resulting in a complex network of relationships across the levels of hierarchy. Power and authority are highly valued.

The best analogy for a Chinese company is that of a family with a head patriarch. Like France, China values high power distance and, like England, low uncertainty avoidance. This means that, despite having a typical hierarchical society that values company loyalty, risks and rule-bending are embraced, which has helped to position China as an economic superpower.

Although I can’t stress enough that analogies are never perfect and nothing is one-size-fits-all, they do allow managers to form mental models, aiding understanding in the workplace environments of foreign countries.

10 Cultural Universals: Politics

Politics in Culture

Democracy, communism, socialism, totalitarianism.

The politics of a nation shape its values and are shaped by them.

The cycle is continuous and feeds itself: culture feeds politics, and politics feed culture. This cycle is only disrupted by some huge collapsing event.

What do I mean by “collapsing event”?

I’ll give you an example.

Germany & WWII

One obvious example of this is WWII.

When Hitler and the Nazis gained control, so did their political values: anti-semitism, the concept of an Aryan “master race,” and the formation of a “New Order.”

“There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it…there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.”

Adolf Hitler, Munich (April 12, 1922)

This was the first of the collapsing events: the Nazi takeover.

In 1945, another collapsing event would occur: their defeat.

And 44 years later, in 1989, would occur another collapsing event in Germany – this one almost a literal one – the fall of the Berlin wall, which separated East Germany from West Germany.

It was this collapsing event that eventually led to the Germany we know today: a federal parliamentary republic, an influential leader in Europe and the world, and the fourth largest economy.

This example demonstrates that politics can momentarily distort a culture’s values, can lead to evil acts. But, ultimately, if the majority’s values are good and strong, politics cannot destroy the true nature of a culture.

As long as that majority does not remain silent.

Collapsing Event

You can probably determine from the above example what a collapsing event is.

It’s a moment in history that almost entirely collapses the status quo, keeps the good or the bad (depending upon the values of the dominant group), attempts to eliminate the “other,” and starts building the status quo again from the ground, up, under newly installed values.

This is politics in culture.

Oftentimes, a collapsing event occurs through war and violence. In fact, one might look at politics as a war for cultural values.

Political Movements

A few more examples of collapsing events across history:

  • American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln led the North in defeating the confederates to preserve the union and abolish slavery.
  • Cultural Revolution – Chairman Mao Zedong’s attempt to preserve Communist ideology by destroying some of China’s capitalist past and tradition and silencing (and often publicly humiliating) community intellectuals and thought leaders.
  • Execution of the Romanov Family – The Bolsheviks murdered the family members of the last living tsar dynasty to end imperialism in Russia.

The list is endless, and the bodycount is often devastating. These events create a turning point in history, where the established values are disrupted or altered, altogether.

And as we all know, values are the fundamental roots of culture. They define us.

Next week, we’ll talk about how politics, values, and culture collide in North Korea.