Posted: March 16th, 2022
Cultural Diversity in the Workplace
It is a widely embraced certainty that harmony, civility and amicable cooperation in the workplace are highly desirable goals for any company in any industry. And albeit those goals are difficult to achieve even in the best of circumstances – where the bulk of employees share cultural values and language – they present an enormous challenge when the workplace is multicultural. Moreover, given that profit margins in an increasingly competitive global marketplace are directly linked to the presence of – or dearth of – efficient management and motivated employees, understanding how to best utilize the skills of individuals reflecting a diversity of cultures and communication skills is paramount to corporate success.
There are generalized approaches to the challenges of dramatically diverse workplace environments – offered in journals and academic research – and there are also more deeply thought-out scholarly approaches – such as the paradigms of Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, among others. Meanwhile, the broad-spectrum approach offered in the Harvard Business Review is worthy of a place in this introduction; the article asserts at the outset problems resulting from “cultural differences” can, and do, “seriously impair the effectiveness of a team,” or, worst case scenario, can bring the team “to a stalemate” (Brett, et al., 2006).
The Harvard Business Review reports on the results of “extensive research on dispute resolution” – gleaned from a worldwide study of workplace angst / conflict vis-a-vis cultural differences – and came up with four problem categories that can create barriers to the success of a team. One, “direct vs. indirect communication” (this will be dealt with in depth later in the paper); two, “trouble with accents and fluency”; three, “differing attitudes towards hierarchy and authority”; and four, “conflicting norms for decision-making.” Those four categories are well-known to any manager who has culturally diverse employees in his or her shop; the question is, how have the dynamics been handled within those dynamics?
The most successful teams and leaders in management are those who have met multicultural challenges head on, utilizing one of more of four approaches. The first successful approach addressed by the authors is through “adaptation,” which is to say, acknowledging cultural gaps “openly” with employees, and “working around them.” The second strategy that was found in the research was “structural intervention” (by changing the shape of the team to make it more functional); the third strategy that works is “managerial intervention” (establishing norms for procedures or “bringing in a higher-level manager”). And the fourth method mentioned was an “exit” strategy – removing a particular team member when all other options have not proved successful.
Conflict can also become a tool for “revealing an organization’s general status,” according to an article in the Journal of Business Ethics (Virovere, et al., 2002); in Estonian companies (in the old Soviet Union), conflict is stirred (and understood by management) for three reasons. One, the “popularity” of new capitalistic values (verses those clinging to old ways); two, the “inability to organize information according to needs”; and three, “outdated values” (which certainly is not limited to workers in Estonia).
Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Consequences Concepts
Geert Hofstede published his well-known research, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values in 1980; in 2006, the Journal of International Business Studies (JIBS) has published a piece reviewing over 180 studies that were published in 40 business and psychology journals between the time of Hofstede’s cultural values framework and 2002. Those 180 studies were inspired by Hofstede’s groundbreaking research and modeling, and their importance is presented in terms of what is “empirically verifiable” about Hofstede’s cultural values framework.
Prior to presenting the body of JIBS research critiquing the 180 studies, the authors (Kirkman, et al., 2006) offer an overview of Hofstede’s framework. Hofstede, who defined culture as “…the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another,” built his 1980 framework using data from over 116,000 surveys of employee morale which tapped the opinions of 88,000 employees in 72 countries. It can fairly be asserted that Hofstede’s reach was diverse, thorough, and global in scope and fact-based in substance. He established four “dimensions” – well worth reviewing here – as classifications for the regions being studied; the first was IND-COL (IND being “a loosely knit social framework in which people…” are only supposed to care for their families and themselves; and COL “a tight social framework in which people distinguish between in-groups and out-groups,” and fully expect that the in-group will take care of them).
Hofstede’s second dimension, “power distance (PD),” is defined as the extent to which “a society accepts the fact that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally.” His third is UA, “uncertainty avoidance” – the extent to which society feels “threatened by uncertain and ambiguous situations,” and attempts to smooth over these situation through career stability, intolerance of deviant behaviors and ideas, instituting more formal rules, and “believing in absolute truths and the attainment of expertise.” The fourth Hofstede dimension, “masculinity (MAS)-Femininity (FEM); MAS is the extent to which the dominant values are masculine (“assertive,” money-based, and indifferent to the quality of life for other people”); and FEM is, of course, the opposite of MAS. [In another article (Thinkers, 2002), Hofstede is quoted as saying that the UK is a classic example of a MAS society, but in the last 10-15 years, there has been an enormous “feminisation process” in Western democracies.]
There also was a fifth dimension, which Hofstede developed later, called “Confucian dynamism”: long-term or future orientation meaning being thrifty and seeing the big picture, and short-term orientation alludes to values like respect for tradition and fulfilling social responsibilities and obligations.
An interesting outcome of the research on the 180 reviews of the success (or lack of success) of Hofstede’s five-dimensional framework – and pertinent to this paper – was “conflict management.” Subjects in Hong Kong – who ranked “significantly higher in COL” – preferred “bargaining and mediation” to resolve conflict more so than employees in the U.S.; but in both cases, the subject’s preferences in resolving conflict in a multicultural setting were based on how fair the procedures were perceived to be. Hong Kong workers, it was found, were more likely to sue a stranger than U.S. workers; and COL (“in-group” and “out-groups”) was associated with “higher likelihood of suing” when the conflict was not between friends. U.S. workers, meantime, who scored “significantly lower” on IND and COL used more antisocial and self-presentation strategies than Japanese workers, who tended to use more “indirect face strategies,” the authors report.
Interestingly, in the conflict resolution cultural picture presented, Mexican workers – higher in COL and IND than U.S. workers – showed more empathy for others’ outcomes than did the U.S. workers. So, what does this mean for employers in the research genre? Any manager who believes it is strategically and socially important to keep abreast of the research – as a tool for understanding those under his supervision – in a multicultural workplace environment, should be aware of materials like those presented in the Journal of International Business Studies. Meanwhile, in the decision-making genre, entrepreneurs from seven countries (Finland, Greece, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Indonesia and Australia) viewed “cooperative strategies with other firms as more acceptable when they were lower in IND (people on care for their own issues) and MAS (aggressive, money-hungry) but higher in UA (threatened by lack of clarity); these data are showing interested executives and managers that employees from those cultures like to work with others on a more level playing field, without a lot of testosterone and angst.
Fons Trompenaars & Charles Hampden-Turner
In their book, Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, the authors – both internationally recognized for their work in cultural diversity – emphatically state, “It is our belief that you can never understand other cultures.” But clearly it’s worth a try, they probably should have added, because they have been studying the effect of culture on management, and have given over 1,000 “cross-cultural training programs” in 20 nations. The two authors emphasize the difference between “sequential” cultural orientation and “synchronic” orientation – and point to the value of combining the two dynamics. For example, on page 140 of their book, they write about how the Shell (a company that Trompenaars once worked for) oil company adopted “scenario planning,” in which past, present, and future are “synchronized within the imagination,” and three different developments are “traced from past through the present into diverging futures,” and the three become a written story that links time and cultures.
They urge managers to recognize the differences between those employees whose cultures emphasize relating to the past (“motivated to recreate a golden age”; showing respect for older people), those who related strongly to the present (“intense interest” in “here and now”), and those cultural traits that think about the future (talk of “prospects” and “potential”; enthusiasm for strategizing).
Meantime, though it is very obvious to management that being able to speak the language of all one’s employees is preferable, when that is not possible, it’s wise to come to grips with the fact that “Communication essentially is a symbolic activity… A series of symbols used to represent things. [and it is] a process of “coding and then decoding these symbols” (Lewis, 2006). And what must never be lost is that both speaker and listener are stakeholders in the process. Moreover, when the peaceful management of culturally diverse workers is pivotal to the success of a company, it’s important to remember that “intention is not a necessary condition for communication,” and one may try, but one doesn’t always communicate what one intends to communicate.
It is also relevant to touch on the work of Gregory Bateson; in researching possible solutions and definitions towards the management of “complex environmental problems” (Tognetti, 1999), Bateson believed, in the paraphrase of Sylvia S. Tognetti, that “one of the major fallacies of the scientific community is the premise that it is possible to have total control over an interactive system of which oneself is a part.” Hence, one assumes that removal of key policy-makers and executives from workplace dymanics might help solve issues therin. And futhre, Bateson’s emphasis was on “the management of uncertainty,” Tognetti writes in Futures; and one of the ways Bateson approached complex problems was from a hierarchical perspective.
He relied heavily on hierarchically arranged “logical types, from members to classes of classes,” in terms of his approach to inquiry. It is instructive and germane to discussions of multicultural workplace realities to view his “systems framework.” He put forward three levels of logical types in “characterizing resemblances in gross anatomy,” Tognetti writes. A first order comparison examines relationships “between parts within the same individual”; the second order comparison might take a close look at “relationships between different but closely related species such as crabs and lobsters”; and a third would be a “comparison of comparisons, e.g. compare a comparison of crab and lob ster to a comparison between a man and a horse.” When the comparison is in play, the theme becomes, “What are important are the differences and the resemblances between such differences, which in turn reveal ‘the pattern, which connects’, and provide the basis for abduction” – which is without doubt a “fundamental process in human thought.”
Abduction in this context means “a method of constructing knowledge from consistencies in the evidence from multiple perspectives,” Tognetti explains.]
Most of Bateson’s later ideas emerged from this hierarchical framework, and he points to errors he found in others’ models of examining human dynamics, namely Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”: Bateson believed it was not so much a struggle between individuals but that “natural selection acts on populations rather than individuals.” And in Marx, he found a flaw similar to Darwin’s flaw; “…events unfold in a predictable sequence as a result of class structures, regardless of which individual is credited with starting a trend.”
Brett, Jeanne, Behfar, Kristin, & Kern, Mary C. “Managing Multicultural Teams.” Harvard
Business Review. (2006).
Hampden-Turner, Charles, & Trompenaars, Fons. Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding
Diversity in Global Business. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
Hofstede, Geert. “Cultural diversity: four dimensions for defining work-related values
Associated with natural culture.” Thinkers. (2002).
Kirkman, Bradley L., Lowe, Kevin B., & Gibson, Cristina B. “A quarter century of Culture’s
Consequences: A review of empirical research incorporating Hofstede’s cultural values
Framework.” Journal of International Business Studies 37.3 (2006): 285-321.
Lewis, Chad. “Addressing Communication Issues when Managing Multicultural Teams.” All
PM (2006): Retrieved 7 Nov. 2006 at http://www.allpm.com/print/.php?sid=1485.
Tognetti, Sylvia S. “Science in a double-bind: Gregory Bateson and the origins of post-normal
Science. Futures 31.7 (Sept. 1999): p. 689.
Virovere, Anu, Kooskora, Mari, & Valler, Martin. “Conflict as a tool for measuring ethics at Workplace.” Journal of Business Ethics (2002): 75-82.
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