Ideas & Debate

How people adapt to national cultures

culture

Isukuti dancers perform at a past event. FILE PHOTO | NMG

In my last article I wrote about the four elements that, according to the Adizes Institute, make a fully functional manager or, more likely, a functional management team: Producer, Administrator, Entrepreneur and Integrator (PAEI).

Today I follow up with an article I was sent by Rufat Jahangirov, a senior member of the Adizes Institute team, in which he reflected on the influence of national cultures in designing and delivering their programmes on organisational transformation in ways that are compatible with countries’ national values.

It led me to think about how and to what extent I adapt the way I engage with organisations depending on where I am doing so.

I am privileged to have been exposed to a wide variety of cultures, from my Jewish Romanian background to my upbringing in London, with time in France and the US, to my life here in Kenya since 1977. Plus my travels to many other countries around the world, usually as a tourist but sometimes also as a consultant.

Jahangirov refers to the work of Geert Hofstede on the interactions between national and organisational cultures. Hofstede first examines Vertical Power Distance, the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

He then looks at Horizontal Distance, the degree to which people in a society have an independent versus interdependent concept of self.

In societies with high Horizontal Distance – individualistic societies – people’s goals are generally independent from their ingroups; their social behaviours are driven by attitudes, values and beliefs; and they emphasise rationality in evaluating and choosing their social relationships.

On the other hand, in low Horizontal Distance – collectivistic – societies, people are born into extended families or kinship systems that protect them in exchange for giving them loyalty.

Hofstede also studies Uncertainty Avoidance, which defines the degree to which people in society feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations.

Not to be confused with risk avoidance, members of an Uncertainty Avoiding culture take risks as long as they believe they know them. People in Uncertainty Avoidance societies usually prefer clear rules as to how one should behave.

Next Hofstede examines Masculinity versus Femininity. Masculine cultures are ones where men should be assertive, competitive, tough and focused on material success, while women should be focused on the quality of life, maintaining warm personal relationships, offering service, and caring for the weak. Feminine cultures are ones in which emotional gender roles overlap.

Finally, he contrasts Long-term versus Short-term orientation.

Jahangirov notes that it is easier to generate “energy for change” in countries with low vertical distance, high horizontal distance, low uncertainty avoidance and high long-term orientation. He also correlates Hofstede’s culture differentiators with the values and characteristics of the PAEI Adizes management roles and styles.

P and A are short-term oriented roles, whereas E and I are long-term oriented, they have found. Additionally, P and A are the attributes of autocratic management, displaying high Vertical Distance, while E and I preferences lead to more egalitarian decision-making, which suggests low Vertical Distance.

P and E are both independent and individualistic styles, typified by high Horizontal Distance, whereas A is mechanically collectivistic and I is organically collectivistic, reflected in low Horizontal Distance. The A style is characterised as Uncertainty Avoiding, while E is its opposite: Uncertainty Accepting… actually, seeking.

There appears to be no correlation of Uncertainty Avoidance with either P or I management styles. And finally, P is a predominant characteristic of a Masculine culture, while I is the one of a Feminine culture. Both E and A can be either Masculine or Feminine.

It’s hard enough to change cultures even in one’s own back yard, Jahangirov has found, and reflecting on his wonderfully thought-provoking article has filled me with further ways of describing cultures and helping them develop to better places.

What is my experience with how different cultures have led me to adapt my interactions with others? Like Jahangirov, I am at least as aware of sub-cultures, within both countries and organisations, requiring yet more sensitivity on the part of consultants. But you’ll have to wait for another fortnight before reading more about that.

Before closing, let me mention that this is my 400th Business Daily column, and that next month will mark the 15th anniversary of my first one. More later on that too.