Relationship- vs. Rule-Based Cultures: Socially-Based Control vs. Individual Autonomy

Imagine living in a culture where the village and the individual are one and the same.

That’s how the Bantu cultures of sub-Saharan Africa see things: an individual’s welfare is dependent on the village’s and vice versa.

One example of the way this manifests in the culture’s social norms is in their greeting.

The Shona people greet others with Maswere sei (“How is your day?”).

The response is Ndiswera maswerawo (“My day is OK if yours is.”).

Relationships are a fundamental part of the culture, so social control is exercised through relationships.

Last week, we talked about how cultures differ in their views of rules and relationships.

In the Shona society, certain relative figureheads are in authoritarian roles over subordinates in the family. Wives are subordinate to husbands, children to parents, younger siblings to older siblings, and all to the village elders.

The culture sees this subordination as natural. Subordinates don’t buck against the hierarchy, because it is the way of life, and the society’s baobab roots are formed and interconnected by relationships.

In contrast, rule-based cultures don’t see rules and relationships this way.

Human Beings as Autonomous Individuals

Rule-based societies view human beings as autonomous (i.e. having no natural authority over others).

As we saw in last week’s post, the authority in such cultures is rather embodied in the rules – rules that are applied to everyone.

This Western cultural concept can be traced back to God and the Ten Commandments.

God is seen as a lawmaker. He governs using universal rule of law.

The Greeks also influenced the West’s rule-based values, as they saw individuals as generally rational and rules as generally logical.

This idea is the basis of “homo economicus,” a principle in which a prosperous society is based on a logical and rational people.

It follows then that, in rule-based cultures, management and behavior is based upon the culture’s respect for rules.

Both cultural types have rules, but they differ in their relation to these rules in two ways:

  • In relationship-based cultures, the authority of rules is directly related to the authority of the person who lays down the law, while in rule-based cultures, rules are respected for their sake.
  • Moreover, in relationship-based cultures, supervision and shame ensure compliance with rules, while in rule-based cultures, fear of punishment and guilt are used for the same.

How This Difference Affects Business Relations

These complex differences can sew distrust between business partners.

Each culture views their own perspective on rules and relationships as just and right. In turn, they view the other’s perspective as corrupt.

Imagine this scenario, adapted from Riding the Waves of Culture:

A manager in a relationship-based culture offers his nephew a lofty position in the company, despite the fact that this nephew is unqualified.

A rule-based colleague of this manager tells his counterparts:

“They’ll always help their friends and family over more qualified candidates. It’s nepotism. They cannot be trusted.”

On the opposite side, the relationship-based manager sees his rule-based colleague pass up a friend for a position in lieu of a more qualified candidate.

He tells his team:

“He will not even help a friend? How can we trust him?”

In this way, cross-cultural business relations can be easily damaged or decimated, when the motives of other cultures are not understood.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to avoid this misunderstanding.

The Employer-Employee Relationship Across Cultures: Concept of Self, In-groups & the Workplace

How do you view your relationship with your employer?

Do you see the employer-employee relationship as something of a family link?

Or is the relationship strictly professional and contractual?

The way you view this relationship is conditioned by your society’s concept of the in-group. As with many things, this concept is formed according to where your culture lies upon Hofstede’s cultural dimension spectrum of collectivist vs. individualist.

We are Family

Collectivist cultures view the employer-employee relationship as a moral one, a familial one.

Whether or not the company is the in-group, the company is expected to behave according to the in-group’s rules and values.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, the in-group usurps all.

Strictly Professional

On the other hand, individualist cultures see the professional relationship as a contractual one.

The structure and hierarchy of a company/organization are not expected to follow the rules and values of any in-group the individual employees are a party too. Rather, the employees submit to the structure of their company and their company culture.

Why?

It’s pretty simple: because the company is built for the owners/employers and customers, and it’s in the employees’ personal interest to align themselves with this structure. Otherwise, they’re out of work and their self-realization of upward mobility ceases.

Abstract Relationship vs. Social Fabric

Individualist cultures view employee/employer relationships abstractly.

The relationship is built on a contract. Salary in exchange for work…and, hopefully, some employee satisfaction.

Collectivist cultures view companies/organizations as part of the community’s social fabric.

Members are the vehicles of the company’s purpose and meaning.

The companies, themselves, are often run by a family/clan, which can often lead to family hiring and nepotism. As we mentioned last week, this is acceptable – and even expected – in collectivist cultures.

Benefits to senior managers and individual shareholders are not the end-all, be-all of the organization’s development and success in a collectivist society. Instead, the organization serves the society/clan.

Motivational Theories

This is why Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” Herzberg’s two-factor theory, and other models for human motivation, created by Western researchers, don’t withstand cross-cultural tests.

They do not account for the fact that human needs and human motivation (particularly, in the workplace) differ greatly across cultures, which means the incentives to motivate teams will too.

Concept of Self

These differences are related to the concept of self.

The individualist vs. collectivist perspective of self is, understandably, a topic well researched.

Markus and Kitayama (1991) wrote:

“People in different cultures have strikingly different construals of the self, of others, and of the interdependence of the two. These construals can determine the very nature of individual experience, including cognition, emotion and motivation.”

concept of self

This chart shows an overview of various nations’ concept of self.

The US falls on the individualist end of the scale, while Asian countries fall on the collectivist end. European countries lean toward individualism, while others – like India, Spain, and Russia – are more central, balancing individualist values and ideals with collectivist ones. The Middle East, African countries, Mexico, and Japan are more collectivist-leaning.

While this chart isn’t too surprising, the way self-concept manifests in cultures in the areas of cognition, emotion, and motivation varies.

We’ll talk more of self-concept next week.

No Absolutes

The bottom line is there are absolutely no absolutes when managing and motivating across cultures. Motivational tactics that work in an individualist culture may not work in a collectivist one.

As a Western manager, don’t become the monkey in your workplace. Know that there are no absolutes. Know that, just as individualism is not the only driver of economic success, individualist motivators are not the only possible drivers for your employees.

You must adapt. In collectivist cultures, manage groups instead of individuals.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.