Understanding Cultures & People with Hofstede Dimensions
The theory of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions constitutes a framework revolving around cross-cultural communication, which was devised by Geert Hofstede. The dimensions collectively portray the impact of the culture ingrained in society on the values of the members of that society. They also describe the relationship between these values and behavior, with the help of a structure based on factor analysis. In other words, this theory studies significant aspects of culture and provides them a rating on a comparison scale.
So far as international business is concerned, the dimensions of culture form an important facet. Knowledge of the manner in which different features of a business are viewed in different cultures, can help a manager in understanding and sailing successfully across the international business market.
In this article, we discuss the topic of Hofstede cultural dimensions by exploring 1) an introduction; 2) the six cultural dimensions of Hofstede framework, and using those dimensions to better understand cultures and people based on 3) a case study of cultural differences; 4) the urgency of managing cultural difference as part of human resources management; and 5) conclusion.
INTRODUCTION TO HOFSTEDE’S CULTURAL DIMENSIONS
The original model of Hofstede was the outcome of factor analysis done on a global survey of the value system of employees at IBM between the years 1967 and 1973. This theory was one of the initial ones which could quantify cultural differences.
The original theory that Hofstede proposed talked of four dimensions, namely power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism and masculinity vs. femininity. After conducting independent studies in Hong Kong, Hofstede included a fifth dimension, known as long-term vs. short-term orientation, to describe value aspects that were not a part of his original theory. Again in 2010, Hofstede devised another dimension, the sixth one, indulgence vs. self-restraint, in an edition of ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind’, co-authored by Michael Minkov.
Hofstede’s work serves as the base for other researches in cross-cultural psychology, inviting a number of researchers to study different aspects of international business and communication. These dimensions founded by Hofstede illustrate the deeply embedded values of diverse cultures. These values impact not only how people with different cultural backgrounds behave, but also the manner in which they will potentially behave when placed in a work-associated context.
This is a brief overview of the six cultural dimensions:
- Power Distance: This dimension explains the extent to which members who are less powerful in a society accept and also expect that the distribution of power takes place unequally.
- Uncertainty Avoidance: It is a dimension that describes the extent to which people in society are not at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty.
- Individualism vs. Collectivism: The focus of this dimension is on the question regarding whether people have a preference for being left alone to look after themselves or want to remain in a closely knitted network.
- Masculinity vs. Femininity: Masculinity implies a society’s preference for assertiveness, heroism, achievement and material reward for attaining success. On the contrary, femininity represents a preference for modesty, cooperation, quality of life and caring for the weak.
- Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation: Long-term orientation describes the inclination of a society toward searching for virtue. Short-term orientation pertains to those societies that are strongly inclined toward the establishment of the absolute truth.
- Indulgence vs. Restraint: This revolves around the degree to which societies can exercise control over their impulses and desires.
THE SIX HOFSTEDE DIMENSIONS & UNDERSTANDING COUNTRIES, CULTURE AND PEOPLE
According to Geert Hofstede, culture is the mind’s collective programming that differentiates between one category of people and members of one group from another. The term ‘category’ might imply nations, religions, ethnicities, regions across or within nations, genders, organizations, or occupations.
#1: Power Distance
Power distance stands for inequality that is defined not from above, but from below. It is, in fact, the extent to which organizations and societies accept power differentials.
Societies with large power distance are characterized by the following features:
- Autocracy in leadership;
- Authority that is centralized;
- Paternalistic ways of management;
- A number of hierarchy levels;
- The acceptance of the privileges that come with power;
- A lot of supervisory staff;
- An expectation of power differences and inequality.
Societies that have small power distance possess the following features:
- Participative or consultative style of management;
- Decision-making responsibility and authority decentralized;
- Flat structure of organizations;
- Supervisory staff small in proportion;
- Questioning the authority and lack of acceptance;
- An inclination toward egalitarianism;
- Consciousness of rights.
#2: Uncertainty Avoidance
Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which the members belonging to a society are capable of coping with future uncertainty without going through stress.
Weak uncertainty avoidance comes with the following features:
- Undertaking risk;
- Tolerance toward differing opinions and behaviors.
Strong uncertainty avoidance is represented by the following aspects:
- Tendency to avoid risk;
- Organizations that have a number of standardized procedures, written rules, and clearly delineated structures;
- Strong requirement for consensus;
- Respect for authority;
- Requirement for predictability highlighting the significance of planning;
- Minimal or no tolerance for deviants;
- Promotions depending upon age or seniority.
#3: Individualism vs. Collectivism
Individualism set against its opposite collectivism defines the extent to which individuals are inclined toward remaining in groups.
Individualistic cultures are characterized by:
- Fostering contractual relationships that revolve around the fundamentals of exchange. These cultures engage in the calculation of profit and loss prior to engagement in a behavior.
- Concentration on self or at the most very near and dear ones, and concern with behavioral relationships as well as own goals, interests, and needs.
- Emphasis on personal enjoyment, fun, and pleasure, over duties and social norms. They are a part of a number of in-groups which hardly have any influence on their lives.
- Self-sufficiency and value independence, and placement of self-interest over collective interest. Confrontation is accepted as an attribute.
- Stress on horizontal relationships (such as the relationship between spouse and spouse) rather than vertical relationships (such as the relationship between parent and child).
- The notion that they hold unique beliefs.
Collectivistic cultures are characterized by:
- Behavior as per social norms that are established for maintenance of social harmony among in-group members;
- Considering the wider collective with regards to implications of their actions;
- Sharing of resources and readiness to give up personal interest keeping in mind the collective interest;
- Favoring some in-groups (such as friends and family);
- Being a part of a few in-groups that have an influence on their lives. Rather than being individualistic, they have an increased inclination towards conformity;
- Increased concern regarding in-group members. They show hostility or indifference toward out-group members;
- Emphasis on harmony and hierarchy within group;
- Regulation of behavior with the help of group norms.
#4: Masculinity vs. Femininity
Masculinity and femininity revolve around the emotional role distribution between genders, which is again a prime issue in a number of societies.
Masculine cultures possess the following characteristics:
- Clearly distinct gender roles;
- Benevolence has little or no significance;
- Men are expected to be tough and assertive with a concentration on material achievements;
- Much value is associated with mastery of people, nature, job, and the like;
- Sense of humor, intelligence, affection, personality are considered preferred characteristic traits of a boyfriend by the women;
- Understanding, wealth, and health are considered desirable characteristic traits of a husband by the women.
Feminine cultures possess the following characteristics:
- Overlapping of social gender roles;
- Men, as well as women, are expected to be tender, modest, with focus on the quality of life;
- Emphasis on the non-materialistic angles of success;
- The preferred traits in boyfriends and husbands are the same.
#5: Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation
This is based on the Confucian dynamism. According to the teachings of Confucius, the following aspects of life are evident:
- Unequal relationships existing between people ensure the stability of society.
- Every social organization has its prototype in the family.
- Virtuous behavior involves treatment meted out to others in a similar manner as one prefers to be treated oneself.
- So far as tasks in life are concerned, virtue comprises acquiring skills, working hard, education, being wise in spending as well as showing perseverance and patience.
Long-term orientation (high Confucian values) reflects the following:
- A futuristic, dynamic mentality;
- Emphasis on a relationship order depending on status, and observance of this order;
- Emphasis on persistence and perseverance;
- Stress on possessing a sense of shame;
- Stress on thrift;
- Positive association with economic growth;
- Inclination toward interrelatedness represented in sensitivity toward social contacts.
Short-term orientation (low Confucian values) is characterized by the following:
- Orientation toward past and present;
- Focus on respect for tradition;
- A comparatively static, more conventional mentality;
- Emphasis on saving face;
- Emphasis on personal steadiness;
- Focus on stability;
- Emphasis on reciprocation of gifts, favors, and greetings;
- Negative association with economic growth.
#6: Indulgence vs. Restraint
The dimension of indulgence vs. restraint focuses on happiness. A society that practices indulgence makes room for the comparatively free gratification of natural and basic human drives pertaining to indulging in fun and enjoying life. The quality of restraint describes a society that holds back need gratification and tries to control it through stringent social norms.
International Comparison of Culture on the Basis of Hofstede’s Dimensions
With respect to national scores on a scale of 1 to 120 (1 representing the lowest and 120 representing the highest), the following international comparison has been made between cultures:
- Arab, African, Asian and Latin countries have a higher score with regards to power distance index while Germanic and Anglo countries possess a lower score. For instance, Guatemala has a score of 95 while Israel scores 13 with a very low power distance, whereas the United States stands somewhere in between with a score of 40.
- So far as the individualism index is concerned, a substantial gap exists between Eastern and less developed countries on one hand and Western and developed countries on the other. While Europe and North America are highly individualistic, Latin America, Africa, and Asia score very low on the individualism index with strong collectivist values.
- Highest uncertainty avoidance scores are possessed by Latin American countries, Japan as well as Eastern and Southern Europe. The score is lower for Chinese, Nordic, and Anglo culture countries. For instance, Germany has a higher uncertainty avoidance index with a score of 65, compared to Sweden, which scores only 29.
- Nordic countries exhibit low masculinity, with Sweden and Norway scoring 5 and 8 respectively. Again, Anglo countries, Japan, and European countries such as Switzerland, Austria and Hungary have high masculinity scores.
- Long-term orientation is high in East Asia, moderate in Western as well as Eastern Europe and low in Latin America and Africa.
- Nordic Europe, Anglo countries, certain regions of Africa and Latin America have high indulgence scores, while Eastern Europe and East Asia exhibit more restraint.
CASE STUDY OF CULTURAL DIFFERENCES EXPERIENCED AT A CONSTRUCTION PROJECT IN GHANA
Developing countries often lack native engineers, so foreign engineers are often deployed for sanitation and water systems in rural communities. This is necessary to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target for accessing sanitation facilities and clean water. However, often there is a failure to manage the project effectively due to existing cultural differences between local communities and foreign engineers. This case study of one such project in Eastern Ghana, supervised by a British engineer and project manager, explores some of the critical issues that can arise in a cross-cultural project. Hofstede’s four cultural dimensions have been considered here, namely, masculinity vs. femininity, power distance index, uncertainty avoidance index and individualism vs. collectivism.
- The engineer expected the community to express their opinions regarding the sanitation and water project, including the procedure of the project, the design or any other facet that the community wanted to discuss. However, it was seen that apart from the elders and the chief, the community’s ordinary members had certain inhibitions regarding expressing their opinions.
- It was also noticed during the project that if individuals ever voiced their opinions, they preferred not to express opinions that conflicted with what others had expressed. For instance, on a particular occasion, the engineer asked the opinions of two women in a family. After the first shared her opinion, the second woman, who was younger, was asked to share hers, but she refused to do so. Instead, she said that her mother (the other woman), had already spoken.
- In another case, the engineer approached a woman, who had some problems in walking, for her opinion. In the village, she happened to be the only lady with this problem, so her opinion was sought in order to customize the design for water collection and sanitation systems accordingly. However, this lady was reluctant to voice any opinion regarding this, as she felt that her own well-being was not so much significant considering the entire group. However, when the other women of the community were asked, one suggested a flat design so that the lady with the walking problem could collect her water easily.
- At the start of the project, the engineer could more or less comfortably organize the work schedule and ensure good progress. Many members of the community lent helping hands. However, when the project was drawing to an end, the chief showed a temporary loss of interest due to two reasons. First, his mother had died and he was arranging for the funeral. Second, he had an affair with a girl in a neighboring village and was more inclined to meet her than perform his duties.
- When the community members started returning to work, they seemed lethargic, and the engineer found it very difficult to complete the project within the stipulated deadline.
Explanation of the issues based on Hofstede dimensions:
- The community is from a culture that exhibits high power distance index, wherein subordinates are accustomed to abide by what their seniors tell them to do rather than following more democratic ways. On the contrary, the engineer came from a culture where the power distance index is low, with flatter power structures, wherein the authority and subordinates worked on more or less equal terms.
- The community is more collectively oriented, whereas the engineer belonged to a culture that is more individualistic. Therefore, the community gave preference to the group’s opinion instead of personal opinion. Therefore, when the lady with the walking problem was asked to voice her opinion, she was reluctant to express her personal opinion, as the majority of the community members did not possess her problem.
- Since low uncertainty avoidance and high power distance existed within the community, the members were more inclined toward organizing themselves as an extended family, with the chief being the grandfather of that family. The main authority lies with the chief, who should decide on the best course of action.
- In contrast, the engineer’s culture was one with low power distance and low uncertainty avoidance. Hence, when the project was drawing to an end, the engineer wanted to gather in the other members of the community although the chief lacked interest. But since the chief was not there, the members expressed disinterest, which the engineer interpreted as lethargy.
THE URGENCY OF MANAGING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES AS PART OF HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGEMENT
Managers across the globe are increasingly facing the challenges thrown by the global interdependence of markets, and the human resources department in organizations is not an exception. When a common culture prevails, personnel management is not difficult since everybody has a common conception of right, wrong and accepted behavior. However, when team members come from different cultural backgrounds or the backgrounds of the manager and the team differ, it might lead to grave misunderstandings. Below is an analysis of how culture prevails across some of the major aspects of HR management.
- Recruiting – The definition of a good candidate differs according to cultures. Those who express strong opinions, are outspoken and self-confident, are considered good candidates in individualistic masculine societies. Again in collectivist feminine societies, modest and ‘well connected’ candidates are good ones. Considering this, positioning as an employer in the USA (high on masculinity) is quite different from doing so in Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands (low on masculinity).
- Target Setting – In Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and other low power distance cultures, targets are negotiated, while in high power distance cultures such as Italy, France, and Belgium, targets are set by senior managers.
- Training – In high power distance societies, there is instructor-centric learning, while in low power distance societies, it is more learner-centric and interactive.
- Appraisal – Most of the appraisal procedures are established in the USA or the UK, which are countries with high individualism and low power distance. Hence, as per these countries, the right way of performance enhancement is direct, frank feedback. However, this does not take into consideration that in countries with high power distance and collectivistic cultures, direct feedback is regarded as disrespectful and disgraceful.
This cycle of recruitment, target setting, training and appraisal can be successfully used to manage people if it is culturally adapted. Relevant research and preparation is required for this.
Cultural differences do impact businesses occurring in cross-cultural contexts. A lot of problems arise in matters of participation, communication and other relational areas. However, if business leaders or even the staff understands issues with respect to Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions, these problems can be analyzed through a different perspective, and necessary steps to address these problems can be taken.
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