When we talk about managing across cultures, we tend to think of the words “culture” and “country” interchangeably. For example, it is a widely accepted notion that in Eastern countries like China and Japan, cultural norms dictate that group harmony takes precedence over individual recognition and achievement in the workplace, while in Western countries like the U.S. and Germany, stronger emphasis is placed on individual accomplishment and performance at work. So, managers refer to “Japanese culture” or the “American way” of doing things when referencing work-related beliefs, norms, values, behaviors, and practices. The assumption that “country equals culture” results in expat managers trying to do things the Japanese way in Japan, the Brazilian way in Brazil, and so on.
We challenged this common understanding in a study we recently published in Management International Review. We used a research tool called “meta-analysis” (essentially, a study of studies) to analyze 558 existing studies conducted over the last 35 years on work-related values covering 32 countries from around the world, including the United States, Brazil, France, South Africa, and China. The four work-related values addressed the importance people in each country placed on:
- Individuals vs. groups
- Hierarchy and status in organizations
- Having as much certainty as possible at work
- Material wealth, assertiveness, and competition vs. societal welfare and harmony in relationships
Using these four work-related values, we found that country is actually a very poor “container” of culture. We compared the extent of differences on the values within each country versus the extent of differences between the countries. If country were a good container of culture, we would expect fewer within-country differences (i.e., people in each country have similar shared values), and greater between-country differences (i.e., people in one country have different values from those in another). Interestingly, we found the opposite. Specifically, over 80% of the differences on these values were found within countries, and less than 20% of the differences were found between countries. One of the reasons for this is decades of immigration across countries, leading to more diversity of values within countries.
This means two important things. For one, to talk about a “Japanese” or “American” or “Brazilian” culture leaves a lot of room for error. With such great differences among work-related values within each country, the notion that you can generalize about a country’s work culture is just plain wrong. And two, an American walking down the street in Shanghai is likely to meet many Chinese people with values closer to his or her own than to an “average” Chinese culture. Assuming that national cultural stereotypes apply to most individuals in a country simply does not work.
Once we determined that country was a very poor container of culture, we asked what other potential containers of culture might be superior to country? In other words, if workplace cultures do not neatly cluster within national borders, what does determine how they group together? To answer this question, we compared culture to 17 other possible containers, including such personal characteristics as gender, age, generation, number of years of education, occupation, and socio-economic status, and environment characteristics such as civil and political freedom, economic freedom, GDP/capita, Human Development Index, Globalization Index, long-term unemployment, urbanization, income inequality (using the GINI coefficient), level of corruption, crime rate, and employment in agriculture. Out of this list, country was only the 15th best (or 3rd worst) container of culture, with only gender and age cohorts being inferior to country.
Our analysis showed that demographic groupings such as occupation and socio-economic status were superior to country when capturing similarity in work-related values between people. What that means is that if you put a bunch of physicians from different countries together in a room, they are likely to have more shared work-related values compared to a group of random people from the same country. And, likewise, people in similar socio-economic conditions or with similar levels of education would have more shared values among them than with groups from their birth country. And political and economic characteristics such as globalization or economic freedom were all superior to country of origin for predicting similarity in work-related values. In other words, our data show that it makes much more sense to talk about cultures of professions, rich versus poor, free versus oppressed, than about cultures of countries.
Of course, as with all studies, we have to temper our conclusions with limitations. For example, we examined only four work-related values, not more general societal values such as the importance of freedom, equality, or other broad values. And, our work was limited to just 32 countries, which could affect how applicable our findings are to other parts of the world. But we view our findings as the initial motivation to move away from the old “country equals culture” paradigm. After all, some country borders were arbitrarily drawn based on political considerations and other historical events. Even though it is simple to refer to “Russian” or “Malaysian” or “Argentinian” culture, the diversity of values found within each of these countries makes this an extremely inexact and perhaps an even dangerous practice.
For those who do business globally, the most important takeaway is never to assume that people from a particular country embody the values typically associated with that country. Cultural stereotyping by country will likely lead to a whole host of mistakes when trying lead and motivate a culturally diverse workforce.
via HBR.org http://ift.tt/1TYfux9