Country-Specific Knowledge: Cultural Dimensions & Beyond

Posted on January 15, 2012

Country-Specific Knowledge: Cultural Dimensions & Beyond

Blog: Country-Specific Knowledge: Cultural Dimensions & Beyond

As companies analyze their prospects for current and future growth, they often determine that there are certain locations around the world that are as important or even more important than their traditional markets.

If a country such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, or Mexico is critical to your company’s future, it is vital to have a deep and nuanced organizational knowledge of that country’s culture. Employees who deal with customers, alliance partners, competitors, and suppliers need to know what motivates their counterparts and what drives market trends.

One useful way to begin learning about a particular country is to consider how it compares with other global locations in terms of well-known dimensions of culture – independent vs. interdependent, hierarchy vs. equality, risk vs. caution – along with the practical implications of that country’s profile for everyday business activities. Such general comparisons, however, should only be a starting point.

This blog will address several questions people often ask about differences within and across national cultural profiles that take us beyond the more standard comparisons.

Question #1: What about variation within cultures?

Many of us encounter individuals who do not seem to fit the standard profile for their culture; indeed, our personal profiles may not fit those of our own countries. The standard response is that cultural variation is distributed in a bell curve, and that any given individual may represent the peak of the curve or be an outlier whose patterns of behavior are different from those of the broader population. However, when we examine more closely the sources of variation within the bell curve, there appear to be causal factors that go beyond individual differences. These include contrasts between different social generations, workplace functions, and genders.

Although China has long been regarded as a highly interdependent or group-oriented culture, for example, there are marked generational contrasts. Young Chinese are frequently referred to as “Little Emperors,” who as a result of their country’s one child policy have been raised by six adults – their own parents plus two sets of grandparents – without having to compromise with or take care of any siblings. They are often described as the most independent (some say selfish) generation in China’s history, and both foreign and domestic employers in China comment that this attitude can impede team-building at work.

On the other hand, these same young people bear a huge burden of family responsibilities, obligations, and expectations in a culture where respect and care for elders is a cardinal virtue. Each generation carries a family name that goes back for many centuries, and they are the lone family representative in this new generation. So these independent young Chinese remain profoundly interdependent in a way that may be difficult for outsiders to fathom, yet this is crucial to understand when firms in China attempt to analyze factors such as consumer behavior, brand image, buying decisions, or savings patterns. For instance, the purchase of a major consumer item may involve consultation with one’s extended family, and precede holiday trips back to the ancestral home in the countryside during which these items are displayed as a source of family pride and status. Thus, rather than viewing a given culture as either one way or another – independent or interdependent – it is worthwhile to consider how both ends of each spectrum interact in a given cultural setting.

To take another example, a person may be very direct in his or her everyday communication style, but nonetheless skilled at perceiving messages that are conveyed indirectly through a word, a glance, or the tone of a conversation. Is this person a direct communicator or an indirect communicator? And, although cultural norms may explicitly endorse or even celebrate direct communication – “Say what you mean and mean what you say” – how many people are as direct with their boss or a new social acquaintance as they would be with a peer or an immediate family member? Every country has a complex and normally unarticulated set of rules that cover behavioral variations in a myriad of different situations, and these conventions must be learned to work effectively in any new culture. Simplistic cultural generalizations or do’s and don’ts can become a recipe for trouble unless they are modified by a nuanced understanding of common variations and exceptions to the rules.

Question #2: What does it mean when cultures have similar profiles?

Training program participants sometimes observe that two cultures have similar profiles, and wonder if this makes it easier for people from such locations to understand and to work with each other.

China, Japan, and South Korea in northeast Asia, for instance, share characteristics that stem from historical exchanges of trade goods, people, technology, and ideas.

Figure 1: GlobeSmart ProfileSM comparison: China, Japan & South Korea

They possess a common cultural heritage of Confucianism and Buddhism, and Korea and Japan have both adopted elements of Chinese language and institutions. Yet this does not preclude significantly different national experiences, including communism in China after World War II, the trauma of Korean War which has left the peninsula still divided, and Japan’s rise and fall as an imperialist power that occupied large swaths of its neighbors’ territory. Even shared experiences such as rapid economic growth and declining birth rates have impacted the three countries in different ways at different times, with Japan going first in a reversal of the historical flow of cultural influence. Failure to acknowledge the deep undercurrents of sentiment that accompany these differences as well as the mutual rivalry of close neighbors is a big mistake. So is glibly noting superficial similarities between any of the three countries in the presence of local residents who have been raised with treasured narratives of national uniqueness and struggles against oppressive adversaries.

Aside from near neighbors, two countries in very different parts of the world may also have similar profiles on a particular dimension – for example, Saudi Arabia and Japan are both towards the “relationship” side of the task versus relationship spectrum – but diverge markedly in the actual behaviors that they display.

Figure 2: GlobeSmart Profile comparison:  Saudi Arabia & Japan

Saudis enjoy building relationships by pitching an outdoor tent, even on company grounds, sharing a sumptuous banquet of Middle Eastern foods, chatting and smoking tobacco through a water-filtered hookah pipe, playing cards, and watching soccer on television. Japanese businesspeople prefer to eat their own food, quaff cold beer or warm or cold sake depending on the season, and enthusiastically belt out karaoke songs. When one group tries to build relationships with the other, there is bound to be some discomfort because the two styles don’t mesh easily, and alcohol is of course illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Thus, while a similar statistical rating on the task versus relationship dimension might signal a shared focus on putting relationship-building first, it does not guarantee mutual compatibility or ease in working together.

Question #3: Can we use an individual’s profile to predict success in working with another country?

We are often asked whether the GlobeSmart Profile can be used as an assessment tool, with cultural fit established by a match between one’s personal profile and that of another country. For all the reasons described above – variations within cultures and critical differences even between close neighbors and between countries with similar profiles – this is not a good idea.

Average country scores can be useful for building awareness and highlighting general contrasts, but they do not fully reflect the complex circumstances of a given cultural setting, including the complications introduced by the sub-culture of an organization, function, or team; nor can they anticipate the unpredictable chemistry that occurs when a new person enters the mix.

The ability to perceive and respond flexibly to different circumstances is far more important in determining cross-border success than any superficial correspondence on a numerical scale. Specific behaviors related to flexibility such as Cultural Self-Awareness, Invite the Unexpected, and Frame-Shifting are a sounder basis for assessment and selection criteria. These are three of the ten behaviors identified in our recent study of successful global leadership behaviors.1 Regardless of whether a person’s individual profile falls at one end of the spectrum or another, those who remain embedded in a fixed pattern of behavior are likely to fail, no matter how effective they may have been at home or how close the apparent fit is with another country.

Cultural dimensions should be a starting point for a conversation, one tool for building self-awareness and stimulating inquiry about others. They serve us best when we also take a lively practical interest in individual idiosyncrasies, contradictions within cultures, the impact of historical events, and different ways to accomplish similar objectives.

To learn more about our learning program focused on working in or with specific countries, see Working Effectively With Country X.



1See Gundling, Ernest, Hogan, Terry, and Cvitkovich, Karen, What is Global Leadership?: 10 Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders. Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2011; each behavior is described in detail.


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