Cultural Differences

What Is Culture?
Simply put, culture may be defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another; the interactive aggregate of common characteristics that influences a human group’s response to its environment.”28 More to the point, culture is the “collective mental programming of a people.”29 It is the unique characteristics of a people. As such, culture is:

Something that is shared by all or most of the members of a society
Something that older members of a society attempt to pass along to younger members
Something that shapes our view of the world.

To see how this works, consider the results of a survey of managerial behavior by French researcher Andre Laurent.30 He asked managers how important it was for managers to have precise answers when asked a question by subordinates. The results, shown in Exhibit 2.5, clearly show how culture can influence very specific managerial behavior. In some countries, it is imperative for the manager to “know” the answer (even when she really doesn’t), whereas in other countries it made little difference. Thus, if we want to understand why someone does something in the workplace, at least part of the behavior may be influenced by her cultural background.

Dimensions of Culture
There are several ways to distinguish different cultures from one another. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck have identified six dimensions that are helpful in understanding such differences.31 These are as follows:

How people view humanity. Are people basically good, or are they evil? Can most people be trusted or not? Are most people honest? What is the true nature of humankind?
How people see nature. What is the proper relationship between people and the environment? Should people be in harmony with nature, or should they attempt to control or harness nature?
How people approach interpersonal relationships. Should one stress individualism or membership in a group? Is the person more or less important than the group? What is the “pecking order” in a society? Is it based on seniority or on wealth and power?
How people view activity and achievement. Which is a more worthy goal: activity (getting somewhere) or simply being (staying where one is)?
How people view time. Should one focus on the past, the present, or the future? Some cultures are said to be living in the past, whereas others are looking to the future.
How people view space. How should physical space be used in our lives? Should we live communally or separately? Should important people be physically separated from others? Should important meetings be held privately or in public?
To see how this works, examine Exhibit 2.7, which differentiates four countries (Mexico, Germany, Japan, and the United States) along these six dimensions. Although the actual place of each country on these scales may be argued, the exhibit does serve to highlight several trends that managers should be aware of as they approach their work. For example, although managers in all four countries may share similar views on the nature of people (good versus bad), significant differences are noted on such dimensions as people’s relation to nature and interpersonal relations. This, in turn, can affect how managers in these countries approach contract negotiations, the acquisition of new technologies, and the management of employees.

Dimensions such as these help us frame any discussion about how people differ. We can say, for example, that most Americans are individualistic, activity-oriented, and present/future-oriented. We can further say that they value privacy and want to control their environment. In another culture, perhaps the mode is past-oriented, reflective, group-oriented, and unconcerned with achievement. In Japan we hear that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”—a comment reflecting a belief in homogeneity within the culture and the importance of the group. In the United States, by contrast, we hear “Look out for Number One” and “A man’s home is his castle”—comments reflecting a belief in the supremacy of the individual over the group. Neither culture is “right” or “better.” Instead, each culture must be recognized as a force within individuals that motivates their behaviors within the workplace. However, even within the U.S. workforce, we must keep in mind that there are subcultures that can influence behavior. For example, recent work has shown that the Hispanic culture within the United States places a high value on groups compared to individuals and as a consequence takes a more collective approach to decision-making.32 As we progress through this discussion, we shall continually build upon these differences as we attempt to understand behavior in the workplace.