A Deeper Look at Cultural Awareness in the Workplace

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Working in Africa taught me the importance of understanding cultural norms. I was managing a Kenyan hotel with 400 international guests over the Christmas holiday. We had arranged it all: fireworks, an African choir to sing carols, and Santa arriving on a camel. Yet, I failed my guests and my team by not bothering to pay attention to cultural nuances. How? Despite my team urgently asking why I hadn’t ordered Christmas Crackers for the dinner, I thought it was no big deal. After all, fireworks are much more impressive, right? Maybe they are impressive, but the cultural importance of Christmas Crackers was more important. And by ignoring the Crackers, I faced hundreds of angry guests, and a disgruntled  team. Read more about that story here.

The hospitality business definitely offers a crash course on handling cultural differences with acute sensitivity. It takes background research, listening skills (link), and empathy (link) to successfully host people from other cultures. The traditional business world faces similar situations, where cultural differences can cause a multitude of misunderstandings and frustrations on international teams or on teams with international co-workers.

The Benefits of Workplace Cultural Awareness Extend Beyond “Getting Along”

The benefits of being culturally aware are innumerable, and with the global economy, intercultural teams are becoming the norm. SHRM Foundation reports, “At a very basic level, culturally appropriate communication and nonverbal business etiquette are essential to success in running international teams or engaging in negotiations with foreign firms.”

Being aware of the common differences between cultures increases trust, improves work relationships and streamlines projects. It also improves communication, which is the backbone to any successful team. When coworkers coworkers are curious enough about each other to learn about cultural similarities and differences, and treat one another’s differences with respect, the positive effect on engagement is powerful.

A client asked me to speak on cultural awareness, with a focus on their international offices in the United Kingdom, United States, China, India and Sweden. I used Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory as a framework for building a greater understanding between the different cultures in their organization.

The Cultural Dimensions Theory Gives In-Depth Insight into Cultural Differences

The Cultural Dimensions Theory is a result of social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s six-year worldwide survey of employee values. By surveying 50 countries and three regions, he was able to identify differences in cultures in six primary dimensions. These dimensions address four anthropological problem areas that national societies handle differently. They are:

  1. Ways of coping with reality
  2. Ways of coping with uncertainty
  3. Relationship of the individual with her or his primary group
  4. Emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy

The six dimensions that address these four anthropological problem areas are fascinating once you start researching them.  The dimensions are:  

  • Power Distance
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Individualism/Collectivism
  • Masculinity/Femininity
  • Long-/Short-Term Orientation
  • Indulgence/Restraint.

Different cultures were evaluated to determine where they fall on the spectrum, between high and low, of each dimension. Below are the basics of each dimension, and where the United Kingdom, United States, China, India and Sweden fall on the spectrum.
cultural awareness in the workplace

1. Power Distance (PDI)

Cultures that score high on the power distance index accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place.. Those with low power distance index scores strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.

Looking at the chart below, we see that the U.S. and the U.K. scored evenly at 40, indicating a low power distance. In the U.K. it is generally believed that inequalities should be minimized, and in the U.S. we like to say, “liberty and justice for all.” China scores high on the power distance index at 80, with India close at 77, meaning inequalities among people are accepted and superior/subordinate relationships are highly polarized. Sweden scores the lowest at 31, where employees are expected to be consulted, control is disliked, and hierarchy is used for convenience only.

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2. Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV)

A tendency toward individualism shows a preference for a loosely knit social framework, while a more collectivist culture has a tightly knit framework. An easy way to think of this dimension is “me versus we.”

Our chart shows again a similarity between the U.S. (89) and U.K. (91), both scoring high in individualism. People in the U.K. are highly individual and private; happiness is sought through personal fulfillment. In the U.S., people are expected to look out for themselves and not rely heavily on authority for support. China scores the lowest at 20, making them it a more collectivist society where people act in the interest of the group rather than themselves. India is midrange at 48, both individualistic and collectivist. In India, actions are influenced by opinion of family, neighbors and colleagues. They are generally loyal employees and experience almost familial protection from employers. At 71, Sweden is a more individualistic society, where there is a preference for a loosely knit social framework. Swedish individuals are expected to take care of themselves and immediate family, and the employee/employer contract is based on mutual advantage.

cultural awareness in the workplace

3. Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS)

A more masculine culture has a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success, while a more feminine culture prefers cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. This dimension can appear sexist at times..

Both China and the United Kingdom scored highest in this dimension at 66, making them a masculine society. Both cultures are success oriented and goal driven. In China, leisure time is not a priority. India is slightly more feminine as a culture, but still on the masculine side at 56. That can be seen in how there is a visual display of success and power, yet spirituality reigns in people. Sweden is extremely feminine, with a score of five. Work-life balance is very important, as well as consensus.

cultural awareness in the workplace

4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)

Scoring high on the uncertainty avoidance index signifies a culture that maintains rigid codes of belief and behavior and is intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Low scoring societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles. Questions to ask yourself here may be, “How does a particular culture embrace the unexpected or unknown? Are they open to ambiguity?”

None of the countries mentioned in this article scored high on the uncertainty avoidance index. The U.S. scored highest at 46, but maintains  that new ideas are generally accepted and having a lot of rules is disliked. Next down is India at 40, where nothing has to be perfect or go as planned. People in India are comfortable with established roles/routines; rules are just in place to be circumvented. The U.K. (30) and Sweden (29) scored closely. In the U.K. they are generally happy to “take things as they come” and are amenable to changing plans as they go along. Hofstede says, “In societies exhibiting low UAI like Sweden, people believe there should be no more rules than are necessary and if they are ambiguous or do not work they should be abandoned or changed. Schedules are flexible, hard work is undertaken when necessary but not for its own sake, precision and punctuality do not come naturally, innovation is not seen as threatening.”

cultural awareness in the workplace

5. Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO)

Societies that lean toward long-term orientation take a pragmatic approach. They encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. Short-term normative orientation societies prefer to maintain time-honored traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.

China scored the highest in this category at 87. Chinese culture is pragmatic and able to adapt traditions. They have a strong desire to save and invest, and the truth is not set in stone, but rather dependent on the situation, context and time.  India and the U.K. both scored 51, and Sweden scored 53, meaning the dominant preference cannot be determined. The U.S. scored relatively low at 26, where businesses measure performance on a short-term basis with quarterly P&L statements. There is also a strong idea of what is “good” and “evil” in the U.S. culture.

cultural awareness in the workplace

6. Indulgence versus Restraint (IND)

More indulgent societies allow relatively free gratification of human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Societies that lean toward restraint suppress gratification of needs and regulates that by means of strict social norms.

Sweden scored the highest in this dimension at 78, making it a dominantly indulgent culture. They are willing to realize impulses and desires with regard to enjoying life and having fun. They also tend toward optimism, and value leisure time. The U.K. (69) and U.S. (68) scored similarly, indicating a tendency toward indulgence. In the U.S. we like to say, “work hard, play hard, “ which is a example of a more indulgent frame of mind. The U.K. tends toward optimism, values leisure time immensely, and is willing to realize impulses and desires. China (24) and India (26) both lean toward restraint, where there is little to no emphasis on leisure.

cultural awareness in the workplaceHofstede says, “It’s important to remember that cultural dimensions don’t exist in real life. They are only a way of understanding a very complex world. They are a framework for making sense of differences. We can use them as long as they are practically meaningful. As such, the dimensions help us understand that what happens in one particular culture does not necessarily happen in another.” Also remember that this theory is about cultural groups and not individuals, who can vary widely from each other despite sharing a culture.

He also points out that the base of all cultural understanding is curiosity. Try to find out different things about your colleagues from a different culture. Geography, music, history and/or literature is a great place to start.

Preview For Next Week: A Practical Look at Cultural Awareness

>Hofstede’s  six dimensions influence important aspects of business relationships, like hierarchy, time and decision-making. Differences in approaching these three things can cause a lot of misunderstanding in the workplace—leading to frustration, distrust, and productivity loss. In our next blog, we’ll take a look at how the countries identified earlier—United Kingdom, United States, China, India and Sweden—approach hierarchy, time, and decision-making. The benefits? We’ll experience increased cultural awareness, decreased derailment, and the opportunity to improve the working relationships of diverse teams.

If you’ve worked with people from the U.S., U.K. India, China or Sweden, I’d love to know if this information rings true for you. Please share your personal experiences in a comment below, send me an email, or find me on  Twitter.

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