Cultural Ambiguity & Uncertainty: Following the Line of Logic to Understanding

One of the most difficult parts of managing across cultures is a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to rules.

Those from rule-based cultures, thrust into relationship-based environments, likely find the rules ambiguous, and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, the rule-based US culture professes a fundamentally rule-based management theory, decidedly offering straightforward advice regarding successful management.

Take “ad res” versus “ad personam,” for example.

Ad Res vs. Ad Personam

hierarchychartAmerican universities teach an “ad res” organizational theory, in which organizations are structured in a chart adapted to the business. The names can be altered in the chart, as the organizations are indifferent to the people who fill the roles.

However, this differs from how relationship-based cultures view organizational structures. In these cultures, organizations consider “ad personam” to be correct, which is quite the opposite of “ad res.”

With “ad personam” organization, the individual people come first.

Vagueness Leads to Misunderstanding

This is just one example of the way a culture’s values shape their management theory and structures. Just one more reason to clarify any cultural ambiguity or uncertainty in order to better manage within another culture.

Uncertainty stems from vague values, norms, and behaviors, which lend themselves to wrong assumptions.

When things are uncertain or ambiguous, the first step is always to seek understanding.

As we talked about early in this blog, finding the rationale behind the values, norms, and behaviors of your cross-cultural counterparts is essential to clarifying uncertainty and ambiguity.

And the first steps in seeking understanding are to:

  1. Identify the conflicting issue – pinpoint whatever it is that’s rubbing your own values and beliefs the wrong way.
  2. Look at the issue from the other culture’s baobab tree – keeping in mind what you’ve learned about the culture, try to see the issue from their perspective, their standpoint, their worldview.
  3. Seek out the advantages in their perspective – when you approach the issue from your own baobab, you’ll probably see the other’s perspective in a negative light; but from their baobab, a spotlight is shone on their train of thought, allowing you to see more clearly.
  4. Find the line of logic – while seeking understanding may not bring you in line with the other’s ideas of personal and social responsibility, finding their line of logic will lead you to a place of clarity. And with clarity comes understanding.

What Are Their Advantages?

When faced with conflicting cultural behaviors, values, norms, and management methods, ask yourself these questions:

What are their baobab’s benefits?

Why and how are their methods successful in their culture?

When you seek understanding instead of discriminating; when you start looking at another culture through their own lens, you may just discover significant advantages to their methods and values.

In doing so, you may also see the disadvantages and limitations of your own culture and ways you can improve your own culture. In fact, you may adopt certain behaviors, values, or norms that you appreciate.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one of the limitations that the individualistic West has started to improve on: corporate social responsibility.

Contracts in China: How Relationship-Based Cultures View Contractual Obligations

When you do business in China, you may come across a common contractual clause.

This clause stipulates that if issues arise, the contracted parties will discuss them and the contract may potentially be redrafted.

China is a relationship-based culture.

Someone from a rule-based culture, like most Western societies, will likely take issue with this clause.

Contracts are supposed to be black-and-white. They are supposed to be unambiguous. They are supposed to regulate specifically every aspect of the business relationship.

Contracts exist to effectively end the negotiation stage and begin working together.

The clause makes it clear that the contractual agreement may be renegotiated at any time. That means, for instance, when the parties do face a dispute, it might not go to court in the city in which the contract stipulates, but rather in a city court where the established law may work in the other party’s favor.

So, why even negotiate a contract in China? If it’s so ambiguous, what does the contract stand for?

Relationship-based Values vs. Rule-based Values

The relationship-based culture of China values a mutually beneficial and respectful business relationship. The contract is symbolic as such.

The contract signifies that personal relationships exist amongst the parties, therefore future disagreements may be negotiated.

While in Western cultures, a signed contract might mark the end of the negotiation process, in China – and in other relationship-based cultures – it marks the beginning.

You might think you’ve nailed down prices, but even those can be renegotiated days or weeks after signing.

Although those from Western cultures might see such a contract as pointless, its signing is still very important in relationship-based cultures.

In fact, it’s so important, that a contract signed with a Chinese company traditionally involves a luncheon or ceremony when making it official.

As soon as a contract is signed, it signifies that the two parties – especially the leaders – are publicly friends and will be respectful of their business relationship.

Relationships-to-Home Life

Relationship-based societies also view work life and personal life as inseparable to the point that “personal relations” and “business relations” are concepts that don’t exist in these societies.

That’s because company rules are dominated by relationships, particularly if an employee’s in-group is their family or tribe.

This means that if you have a conflict with an employee, it can often extend to a conflict with his/her family, kin, or any other member of his/her in-group.

Next week, we’ll discuss how this situation might manifest, along with other conflicts that crop up in business in relationship-based cultures.

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.

Cross-Cultural Management: Understanding Motivating Factors for Different In-groups

As we discussed in a previous post, individualist motivational management is obviously very much centered around the individual.

Praise for outstanding work, recognition, both material and immaterial. “Employee of the Month” springs to mind.

For individualist cultures, being recognized for individual achievement means you are succeeding in your career – and at life.

But these same tactics do not always work in other cultures.

So, what does work?

Translating Cultural Dimensions into Workplace Management

In order to discover what works in managerially motivating across cultures, you must identify the in-group.

Last week, we talked about how economic success does not depend wholly on whether a culture is individualistic or collectivistic.

Rather, the in-group is what matters.

Whether company or country, in-groups are the primary drivers of workplace motivation.

Loyalty to groups is key to economic growth, and identifying the culture’s in-group can help you adapt your management style to the culture’s values.

In many collectivist cultures, the in-group is the family or the clan. The fact that it isn’t the company or oneself creates motivational differences from individualist cultures.

Learn Some Cultural Motivations

Diplomas – Diplomas are a way to climb the status ladder in collectivist cultures. Rather than seeing diplomas as paving the way toward the career ladder of better opportunities, diplomas are a door opening to a higher status group.

Because of this cultural perspective, diplomas are not sought to increase self-confidence in one’s abilities, but rather primarily to gain status.

Mobility – There are various types of mobility – occupational, geographical, hierarchical, etc. – and they are viewed differently across cultures.

In collectivist cultures, where the in-group is incredibly important, mobility across all types is lower, because it results in a change in one’s in-group.

Why?

If you have geographical mobility, you might leave your family. If you have hierarchical mobility, your in-group must approve of any upward change in position within your company, or this new position must be consistent with the role they’ve bestowed upon you.

An example: becoming the company boss of a clan elder is likely out of the question. The in-group’s hierarchy (which, in this case, is the clan) will always supersede that of a company’s organizational formalities.

Nepotism – Hiring or promoting family members/friends is seen as morally wrong in Western cultures, particularly if that family member has no qualifications for the role.

This is because individualist cultures view employees as “economic persons” who are motivated to pursue the employer’s interests if it aligns with their own self-interest.

Not so much in collectivist cultures.

One’s self-interest – and/or that of one’s employer – is always usurped by that of the in-group.

Therefore, nepotism in a collectivist culture would not only be acceptable, it would be expected.

One example of this in a collectivist culture: Burkina Faso’s former President Blaise Compoare not only hired family members to fill positions in government, but he also built a zoo and an airport in his village and supplied it with electricity (the only village with light for years, at the time).

While this action may have caused an uproar in a Western country, the culture saw Compoare’s actions as morally just. He was caring for his in-group, his people, which is seen as a positive thing in Burkina Faso.

Next week, we’ll talk more about the employer-employee relationship across cultures.

Does Individualism Drive Economic Development?

It’s the age-old question: do individualist cultures see more economic success than collectivist cultures (e.g. capitalism vs. socialism)?

We’ve mentioned how individualism vs. collectivism is one of the most important (if not the most important) of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. The degree to which a culture lies along this scale can determine much of the culture’s values and norms.

The West (the US and European countries, in particular) believes that economic development is fueled by individualism.

Is that the case?

The “Spirit of Capitalism”

Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations (considered “the Bible of capitalism”), wrote that the economic model of the West is rooted in the individual’s aspirations and initiative to earn money, build his career, and elevate his social standing.

He writes:

“The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this – no dog exchanges bones with another.”

And he wasn’t the only economist to believe so. Economist Max Weber coined the phrase the “spirit of capitalism,” which embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of the West, the desire to climb the social ladder and build a career, all of which was once believed by some to be the sole method of driving economic success.

However, as we discussed in a previous post, Japan disproved this theory by demonstrating that a collectivist culture, with its own values and norms, can boom economically as well.

Apart from the “Japanese Miracle,” business models like Kaizen’s steps to improvement and the quality circle provide positive outcomes and follow collectivist values.

The Lexus

An example of collectivist culture contributing to economic success:

I was invited to a presentation of the Lexus, a luxury Japanese car brand. The production process involved a unique manufacturing method put in place to guarantee top quality.

The car bodies were mounted in a large hall and transported along an assembly line of steps, in which each worker had his/her own task, like welding or screwing parts to the vehicle. A string hung from the ceiling at each step, allowing workers to stop the entire assembly line production if necessary.

Of course, pulling that string costs the company a fortune. But not doing so, if there is a quality issue, could cost them even more…and might even ding their reputation if left unchecked.

So, despite the costliness of pulling that string, when an assembly worker makes that decision, he’s greeted with cheers.

Why?

Because he took a bullet for the team, stepped up and disrupted the workflow, hopefully with reason. Nevertheless, the worker isn’t punished for putting quality over cost, which is why Lexus has a reputation for reliability.

In this way and many more, Japan has demonstrated that an individualist culture is not required for economic development. Both collectivist and individualist cultures have their strengths.

Next week, we’ll talk about the driving factor behind economic success in either type of culture.

Society Over Self: Collectivist Cultural Management

The core group in collectivist cultures is family.

And the definition of family differs across cultures, as we’ve previously discussed.

The West often considers the two-generational core to be “family,” while other cultures include extended relations – or even an entire village – under the umbrella.

Other “groups” in collectivist cultures include in-groups, like the company one works for, or society as a whole.

A group’s success and survival – whether the group is family, the village, the company, or society – ensures individual success and survival.

Because of this, harmony is valued in collectivist cultures, as is interdependence of individual members.

Children are socialized in groups early on in order to become interdependent.

Everyone depends on everyone else, because the group only survives as one.

Being recognized for individual achievement is almost unheard of; rather, collectivists work in tandem and share with group members – both their successes and their failures.

Group Loyalty = Self-Loyalty

In a collectivist culture, group loyalty is self-loyalty.

Think of it this way: society, a company, or a family is like a human body. Each member is a limb or an organ; each member is vital to the body’s function.

So, if one organ fails, the body fails.

If one limb is neglected, then the body isn’t functioning at its most optimal.

It’s with this mentality that collectivist cultures place a higher value on the group than the individual.

An individual’s personal goals and ambitions come second to the group’s overall success and well-being.

To return to our analogy, if a body’s personal goal or ambition was to win an arm-wrestling contest, so it pumped iron every day, focusing only on building up the biceps, but forgot about its legs or its core, then the arms might be able to succeed in meeting their ambition, but the rest of the body would suffer.

This is how collectivist societies view personal goals and ambitions.

Your arm (you, the individual) does not work alone.

A collectivist would sacrifice his own career goals for the sake of the group’s.

Society, First

When society comes first, self comes second.

This is one of the main reasons that in collectivist societies, management differs from individualist cultures.

Last week, we talked about how these differences clash through workplace incentives. “Employee of the Month” is one way in which management in individualist societies incentivize hard work.

But would this work in collectivist cultures? Not so much.

What would then?

We’ll talk about that more next week.

“Employee of the Month”: Self-Realization & Individualist Cultures

What is the “American Dream”?

The Commission on National Goals had the answer for President Eisenhower.

They reported that the primary motivator of American citizens was the possibility of individual self-realization.

What does this mean?

Pull Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps

The American Dream doesn’t often include the economic success and overall wellness of one’s neighbor or third cousin.

It’s a dream of one’s own economic success.

In individualist societies – like that of the United States, western Europe, and other Western countries – a person often identifies with themselves above all others and looks to satisfy his own needs before those of the group.

He also sees his path as one of self-determination. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” so to speak.

Self-reliance, personal freedom, and independence are the values glorified by individualist societies.

The individual is the smallest unit of survival.

Employee of the Month

This is why, at an American company, “employee of the month” is a successful incentive for productivity and improved performance in work culture.

The strong individualist culture means that employees will seek any way in which they can stand out from the pack in a positive light.

When your name and photo are posted on a bulletin board of achievement in the company lobby, recognition is your reward, and it fuels individualist motivation.

As a Swiss manager in the US, I appreciated the effectiveness of this reward system. So, I attempted to bring it back to Switzerland with me.

When I implemented “employee of the month” at the Swiss company I was managing, it fell flat. In fact, not only was it not a motivator, the reward system was met with immediate and breathtaking negativity on the staff’s part.

“This is ‘typical American,’” they said, adding that Swiss workplaces traditionally don’t single out individual successes, as they see success as a result of teamwork.

Although “employee of the month” type of recognition is frowned upon by Swiss companies, they are not so collectivist as to dissuade pay-for-performance or achievement-based promotion, also distinctions. The difference is, these are in-group and colleague-approved.

Collectivist Thought

On the other hand, a collectivist culture, which centers around group betterment, rather than individual development and freedom, would not even humor the idea of “employee of the month.”

An international survey asked managers from Egypt, China, Japan, and the US whether they agreed with the following statement:

“When individuals are continuously taking care of their fellow human beings, the quality of life will improve for everyone, even if it obstructs individual freedom and individual development.”

Who agreed?

  • 70% of Egyptian managers
  • 59% of Chinese managers
  • 61% of Japanese managers
  • 31% of US managers

We’ll talk more about that difference in mentality next week.

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.

Differences in Values & Norms Between Multi-generational vs. Two-generational Family Structures

The values and norms of traditional societies versus modern ones are vastly different.

As we’ve previously discussed, while it’s unlikely that a business will ever directly negotiate a contract or deal with a remote population, the knowledge that these fundamentally different values and norms exist is important.

Because if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this blog, it’s this: there’s no “correct” or “superior” way of living; there are only different ways.

Just like your own values and norms, others’ serve a purpose. They may serve either a deep ideological purpose or a more practical one, but purpose is there.

Consider the Purpose

As mentioned in a past post, the Western culture’s idea of family structures is evolving; the modern patchwork family is becoming a norm.

Renowned anthropologist, Marvin Harris, wrote:

“In view of the frequent occurrence of modern domestic groups that do not consist of, or contain, an exclusive pair-bonded father and mother, I cannot see why anyone should insist that our ancestors were reared in monogamous nuclear families and that pair-bonding is more natural than other arrangements.”

Opening up our generalized concept of “normal” family structures can help us more thoroughly understand other cultures.

Consider the purpose that creates the values and norms surrounding these structures and what this purpose might indicate about the broader culture.

Two-Generational vs. Extended

Anthropologists identify differences between two-generation families and extended-generation families.

In the West, when politicians spout slogans in defense of “family values,” the family in question is one of two generations.

That is the nuclear family – the mother and father and their children – as well as divorced families, patchwork families, one-parent families, and unmarried parents. Despite the latter’s complexity, they’re also two-generation families.

However, in other cultures, values and norms centered around extended families – or those of at least three generations – are more common.

Extended families include grandparents on both sides, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and any other kin of the husband and wife.

This valuation of extended families is more prevalent in the world than the Western concept of two-generational families.

Societies that value extended families are typically built on collectivist values, while those that value two-generational families are built on individualist values.

Extended family societies ensure broader social cohesion, communities that are interconnected in order to ensure survival, and the value of personally caring for the aging population.

We’ll talk more about the link between how societies define “family” and the cultural values that determine that definition later in this blog.

But for now, know that more often than not:

  • Two-generational societies = individualism
  • Multi-generational societies = collectivism

As you move forward in reading the blog over the next few weeks, consider what purpose your own values and norms serve. Consider how they might be viewed from the outside, looking in. Only then will you be able to look at other cultures through their own cultural lens.

China and the Marriage Buyer’s Market

You might think there are universal norms regarding love and marriage, but that is certainly not the case.

Last week, we discussed Japan and the norm of marrying for economic advantage over love. In neighboring China, this idea is also ingrained.

And parents considering marriage prospects take the matter so seriously that, in Shanghai, Beijing, and other Chinese cities, “Marriage Buyer’s Markets” exist.

People’s Park Marriage Market

In the Marriage Buyer’s Market in Shanghai’s People’s Park, a summary outline of daughters and sons, alike, are presented by their parents on cardboard signs.

Similar to a job fair, other parents in search of proper partners for their children are invited to walk around, perusing the signs, which enumerate the pros of marrying the daughter/son in question and attempting to matchmake the best prospects.

Some selling points you might see on signs:

  • Born in the year of the dog/171cm/12.000 Yuan salary
  • Own apartment/76sqm/188cm

Chinese marriages are still dowry-based, like in India; but unlike India, the dowry is paid not by the bride’s parents, but by the groom’s, and is termed “bride prices.”

As detailed in The Economist:

“Most of China is patrilocal: in theory, at least, a married woman moves into her husband’s home and looks after his parents…The groom’s parents…are expected to pay for the wedding and give money and property to the couple. These bride prices have shot up, bending the country’s society and economy out of shape.”

This makes shopping for the right partner all the more difficult. If the groom’s family is unable to afford the bride prices, then he is not considered a good match. Moreover, with the male-to-female ratio being 105:100 according to a 2017 census, the gender imbalance in China makes the chances of finding a mate even slimmer.

The bride may also have difficulty. In fact, those women of high income and education who haven’t married before the age of 30 are christened with the derogatory term, “leftover women.”

What this all boils down to is that love is not the currency for successful marriages in China; horoscope, property, and income are.

As one Chinese mother summed up the culture’s values and norms regarding marriage:

“First you build your life, and only then also your love.”

Love Happiness vs. Team Happiness

In this way, the West’s focus on love equating a happy life differs from the Chinese focus on economic teamwork equating the same.

The perfect Chinese mate is someone to help you stay afloat financially, raise a family, and succeed mutually in the balancing act of life…and, perhaps most importantly, not be considered “leftover.”

And searching out this perfect mate is not a private concern; it’s a familial affair.

As Wlada Kolosowa, a journalist for the German magazine, Spiegel, sums up:

“In the Western world, love is a matter between two individuals; in China, it is a union between two families.”

Next week, we’ll talk about two-generation families versus extended-generation families. Stay tuned.