6 ways our cultures shape how we work together in a globalized world — Photo by Nuno Acacio

Why do we behave in certain patterns? And how closely linked are they to the cultures in which we are raised?

According to Geert Hofstede—the late Dutch organizational psychologist and expert in intercultural studies—the correlation is resoundingly clear. We are a direct product of our cultures (which Hofstede defines as “The collective programming of the bond that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.”)

So, what does that mean for our companies and organizations operating in an ever-increasingly globalized world in which people from diverse backgrounds must work together towards unified goals?

At its best, it results in innovative solutions because of more diverse and inclusive thinking. At its worst, it means working relationships rife with misunderstandings, power struggles, and conflicts of ideology.

I teach Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to hospitality students as a lecturer at Swiss Hotel Management School in Caux, Switzerland. Cross-cultural differences are a common theme among our students who reflect nearly 100 nationalities. And it’s always fascinating to witness the different ways students interact and what attitude they have towards teaching and learning based on the culture in which they were raised.

Here are the 6 core cultural differences Hofstede lays out and how they can affect our workplaces and classrooms:

1. Running your own show...or not

If more individualistic cultures value independence and an individual’s ability to choose, a collectivist culture is typically one in which people know where they fit socially within the society and make choices accordingly. They give loyalty to the group in exchange for protection.

Each year, I facilitate focus groups among my students and the results show that students originating from Asian, African, and South American cultures prefer group work—which is more reflective of collectivist cultures—than students from Western Europe and North America. As one student puts it, “I prefer group work. When we work together, we have more people to discuss issues and share research with.” Compare this to what a student from an individualistic culture shares, “I prefer to work on my own and I earn the grade myself. With group work, I feel as if I’m doing all the work and the others are sharing my grade.”

In the workplace, it can be challenging for those from individualistic societies to work in an environment which requires a higher level of consensus and collaboration and vice versa.

2. Who's the boss?

Closely linked to individualism and collectivism is a society’s relationship to power and how it is distributed among its members. Practically, this means that relations between subordinates and superiors are more formal in high-power distance organizations, as opposed to the more informal relationships you’ll find in organizations with a flatter organizational chart.

My findings also affirm this notion, with students originating from Asian, South American and African cultures invariably agreeing that their cultures have high-power distance and European and North American students agreeing their cultures have a lower power distance. In the classroom, students from low-power distance cultures tend to contribute to debate more and are more likely to question the teacher’s input.

One student from a high-power distance culture points out, “I don’t like speaking up in class, I’m a little shy and don’t know how to express my ideas or feelings.” A student from China adds, “In our classes, we don’t normally discuss topics with the teacher, the teacher just talks to us and asks questions, and we answer.”

In the workplace, we can see this play out as employees from low-power distance cultures come forward more often with questions, suggestions and conversation, while high-power distance employees remain quieter. To low-power distance employees, this can be misunderstood as shy or worse as ignorance. Contrarily, employees from high-power distance cultures often view employees from low-power distance cultures as brash and disrespectful.

3. When life is a competition

Masculine cultures are considered to value competition, and “being tough” is seen as a strength. There also tends to be a greater divide between gender roles. In more feminine cultures, competition is not highly endorsed and there is more concern for the most vulnerable within society.

Our cultural tendencies towards masculine and feminine can influence what we perceive leadership to look like and the type of workplace cultures we cultivate. Companies from Scandinavian countries, for example, tend to frown upon the competitive behavior that American companies favor in the workplace, and place much more importance on the quality of life outside of work. This is characteristic of a more feminine culture.

4. Come what may

An uncertainty-avoiding culture feels anxious in the face of ambiguity and tries to mitigate it, while an uncertainty-tolerant culture accepts that life comes with its ups and downs.

Our own culture’s relationship to risk can affect the way we approach innovation or what we perceive to be possible. For example, if someone from an uncertainty avoidance culture is asked to push the boundaries, innovate, and explore possibilities with no guarantee of success, that could cause stress to the employee who feels more comfortable operating within clear boundaries.

In the classroom this plays out with students from high uncertainty-avoiding cultures (for example Switzerland and Germany) wanting to know all the details of how their work is assessed and being more likely to keep to a work schedule compared to the students with low uncertainty avoidance who will “have a go” at the assessment and are more likely to leave it until the last minute. Having students from the two extremes in the same group can cause conflict and needs to be managed!

5. The only constant is change

In a long-term oriented culture, one sees the world as ever-changing, and preparation is key to navigating changes when they arise. Short-term oriented cultures, however, see the world as more fixed.

In the workplace, this means an employee from a long-term oriented culture will likely view norms as flexible and accept the need to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. For an employee from a short-term oriented culture, however, norms are unwavering, no matter the circumstances, and believe there is a clear boundary between right and wrong.

6. Free like a bird

Hofstede’s final dimension refers to a culture’s perception of freedom. To an indulgent culture, “being free” is valued and following one’s impulses is acceptable. In a restrained culture, however, life is accepted as hard, and duty is one’s priority.

For an employee working in a more restrained organizational culture, they may feel trapped and like “a cog in the wheel,” whereas an employee from a restrained culture may feel untethered within a less constricting work environment.

The value in our differences

While some may argue that our cultural differences are being diluted as a result of increased travel, open borders, and the rise of international companies, I believe they are as present today as they were when Hofstede first presented his research in the 1960s. The findings from my student focus groups certainly suggest so.

So, what does that mean for our increasingly globalized world? It means we must all practice self-awareness and take advantage of opportunities to experience other cultures and points of view. I believe there is much value in our differences if we are aware, which we can leverage into collective strengths, and we can certainly learn valuable lessons from each side of the spectrum.

This is what I teach my students at Swiss Hotel Management School, where students get to practice this cross-cultural exchange every day as they live and study together. I see first-hand how beneficial this exposure to different cultures and ways of being is for our students — it challenges them, opens their minds, and is preparing them for international careers in hospitality. The way they embrace one another, I feel we all have much we can learn from this next generation of leaders.