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The impact of culture on management: A primer.

Navigating leadership in an increasingly diverse workplace.

Thierry Maout
May 21, 2020 · 7 min read

Over the last 8 years or so, I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in a bunch of countries: France, the USA, the UK, Ireland, Germany and now Canada. In most of these places, the companies I worked for were composed of people from all walks of life and parts of the world: Brazil, The Netherlands, Ghana, South Africa, Italy, India, and more. It has been an amazing opportunity for me to learn and grow, but also came with its challenges.

During my Master’s degree in 2016, I started to look into the topic of intercultural management. I was working in the UK at a Cameroonian telecommunication company at the time, and although I had experienced cultural differences in the workplace before, it was the first time I felt the need to actively work on understanding the cultural ins-and-outs of my interactions with management, customers and colleagues. This led me to write my thesis on the topic of how culture can influence management, conducting research on existing literature and a qualitative study, gathering testimonies from international workers of 10+ nationalities.

Now I’m not going to lie, my paper wasn’t all that great. I’ve gone over it again recently (a fun activity to cringe and remember worse days), and while it was full of holes and mishaps, the topic was still interesting. I believe it has helped me adapt and interact with more mindfulness with people in the workplace since. Even though I won’t publish the actual paper (for both your sake and mine), I figured that putting together a primer on the topic could be a nice refresher for myself, and hopefully come in handy for someone, somewhere.

When talking about managing across cultures and intercultural management, the fella you will run into straight away is Geert Hofstede. And what better way to start than with his definition of culture:

Hofstede was a social psychologist renowned for conducting massive survey personnel research at IBM and coming up as a result with his cultural dimensions theory, mapping out the influence of national culture on the values and communication styles of its members and how it impacts their behaviour. On his website, these 6 dimensions are described as:

  • Power Distance: The extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  • Individualism / Collectivism: The extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • Masculinity / Feminity: The extent to which the use of force in endorsed socially.
  • Long Term / Short Term Orientation: Long-term orientation deals with change.
  • Indulgence / Restraint: Indulgence is about the good things in life.

The model and its indexes have originally been created in regards to national culture but Hofstede (and his son with whom he’s done a lot of work) extended it into organisational culture as well. Here’s an example of a map depicting the differences regarding the Power Distance Index:

(Source)

Hofstede is a good place to start because his work is a reference on the topic, but one could argue that it is limited in some ways. This great piece by Yuwen Li, a UX Designer & Developer based out of Seattle, highlights some of these flaws and gives very interesting criticism of Hofstede’s work and definition of culture, along with great insights on its design applications:

Erin Meyer is Erin Meyer is a professor at INSEAD, focusing on how the world’s most successful managers navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a global environment (source).

She introduced her Culture Mapping Tool in her book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. In this article (featured in the very good “HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing Across Cultures”), she presents the eight scales composing the map in details, each rangin from one extreme to another:

  • Communicating
  • Evaluating
  • Leading
  • Deciding
  • Trusting
  • Disagreeing
  • Scheduling
  • Persuading

By following this link, you can get an interactive example of the Culture Mapping Tool applied to a few examples, comparing pairs of countries and including common ground, differences and advices:

(Source)

She also maps out in this follow-up article Leadership Cultures on a scale making a clear distinction between attitudes toward authority (from hierarchical to egalitarian) and attitudes toward decision making (from top-down to consensual):

(Source)

I enjoy Meyer’s models and work as it brings a very hands-on guide for the global leader (which I very much am — not) contrary to Hofstede, Schein and other researchers who can appear quite abstract at times. Her writing and seminars are very entertaining and full of concrete examples which most people with global experience can relate to.

Edgar Schein’s work comes up as a natural transition. He is a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and has published a number of books on career development, group process consultation, and of course organisational culture.

Organisational culture is not exactly what we’ve been talking about so far. According to the always reliable Wikipedia, it “encompasses values and behaviours that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business”. Even though, I have found Schein’s work very interesting and relevant as it digs deeper into the concepts of culture in the workplace.

Acknowledging that there are a wide array of elements coming to play beyond the national culture, Schein describes in the following video his experience working with an American startup and a Swiss enterprise:

“(…) there were rather big differences between how these two companies operated. The questions then is: How do you account for these differences? Well, the obvious simple answer is one is an American yankee company and one is an old Swiss-German company.

But then I also had to take note of the fact that electrical engineers really have a different kind of task than the chemical engineers. Their backgrounds are different, their mentalities are different, so on top of the national differences, I began to see these occupational differences in the work itself. And then add to that the company histories: One is a young startup just growing, the other is an old chemical giant on the verge of downsize.”

He brings his own model into play with his “Levels of Organisational Culture”, breaking down the dynamics at play from a superficial to a deeply rooted level:

(Source)
  • The Artifacts are the visible organisational structures and processes.
  • The Espoused Values are the strategies, goals and philosophies.
  • The Underlying Beliefs are the unconscious, taken for granted beliefs, habits of perception, the ultimate source of values and action.

This echoes to Hofstede’s Onion Model, circling back to where we started (very nice article structure eh!).

One of the things I’ve tried to be mindful about in my paper at the time was the danger of stereotyping when talking about culture. The goal was never to put everyone in a box based on where they’re from and to write a guide on how to communicate with them.

As Edgar Schein mentions in the interview above, classifying management challenges based on national culture can lead to a very surface-level analysis. Working in tech, I have observed how technical software development teams often share a common culture with their own values, motivations, codes (pun intended) and beliefs, independently from the national culture of each member but also from the organisational culture of the company as a whole.

Similarly, I would like of think of myself as an individual, more than the sum of my professional experiences and beyond the fact that I am was born and raised in France (although I do consume a large amount of carbs and love being a contrarian for the sake of it). Globalisation and the rise of the internet is also obviously blurring the lines, and I believe the influence of national culture is bound to decline as we continue moving into that direction.

We are only scratching the surface here but I hope this made for an interesting read, and I highly recommend checking out the links at the end to dive deeper into it. Whatever your role is, this can be a highly relevant topic at a time where your next team might very well be spread out over several continents, composed of members with totally different backgrounds and building products for a global audience.

Inspired by an original answer I gave on www.quora.com.

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Thierry Maout

Written by

Jack of all trades, master of some. Vancouver-based, I write about tech, business, MMA and education. Mostly in English, but sometimes in French too.

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