Video: Tuesday, 1 November 2016
Managers encounter problems in their decision making when they treat ‘culture’ in the same way that they treat hard and comparable data. When they do, they would probably see culture as ‘software of the mind’, a set of characteristics shared by compatriots that instil certain unchangeable values. Managers expect this software inevitably leads to specific behaviour. But I believe that managers are better off treating culture as a repertoire of actions from which people can choose depending on the situation in which they find themselves.
Management researchers that follow this ‘culture as software’ idea typically build their theories about culture based on large-scale surveys that ask respondents to state their preferences on a number of issues: do they value the common good over individual success? Are they more likely to avoid uncertainty or are they inclined to venture into the unknown?
Respondents are then divided into subgroups based on their nationality and compared to each other. It is then claimed and demonstrated that part of the differences in average values for each nationality can be explained by a ‘national culture’, which is fixed and leads to predictable behaviour.
The Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, arguably the most prominent proponent of the ‘culture as software’ model, roundly admits that only four per cent of the variance in his own data can be explained by ‘national culture’. What’s more – and perhaps surprisingly – the within-country differences in Hofstede’s database are greater than the differences between country averages.
The idea that a certain mindset strictly follows the borders of a nation state becomes problematic when you look at the historic evidence. Does the creeping annexation of parts of Georgia by Russia mean people in the annexed area suddenly change their national culture? Or does the incorporation of Poland into foreign empires between 1795 and 1918 mean that the country’s national culture temporarily ceased to exist?
The idea of a fixed, unchangeable mindset leading to predictable behaviour ignores the highly relational nature of culture. If I take my own situation as an example, my cultural identity depends on the surroundings I find myself in. When I am in the USA, I am identified as having a European outlook. When I set foot in my nation’s capital, Amsterdam, the fact that I am from Rotterdam becomes more important, and when I visit my brother in the south of the Netherlands, I am from the Randstad (a conurbation that includes Rotterdam, The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, and Amsterdam). And if I were to take part in a book club on intersectional feminism, my status as a white male would undoubtedly become more important.
So does this mean that national culture is a worthless concept in management? I don’t believe it is. Everyone intuitively knows that being born and raised in a national culture always plays a role in defining who we are to some extent.
That is because as we grow up we are exposed to what sociologists call national habitus. This is a collection of practices and standards that come as second nature to people living in a particular country. It’s a set of rules they conform to unconsciously. These rules typically follow a distinctly national pattern because they are organised and transmitted on a national scale.
For example, in the Netherlands cycling can be seen as part of the Dutch national habitus. Almost everybody learns how to do it, and does it without giving it much thought. Important mechanisms through which groups of people become socialized on a national scale are, for example, the education system, the national media, and the behaviour of elites imitated because of status anxiety, shame, or aspiration.
Nationality doesn’t have to be regarded as something that inevitably leads to a particular behaviour. It is just one of many items in the cultural menu on which people can choose to base their actions.
The idea of national habitus also helps to explain why and how national cultures change or decline. For instance, national media are thought to hold less sway over younger generations in the age of Netflix and YouTube. And the more egalitarian mindset of the past 50 years means that traditional elites are less likely to be identified and imitated.
I believe that leaders who manage a team with many different nationalities would be more effective if they looked not just at the average scores on value dimensions, but also at the national habitus instilled in their team members. In practice, that means that trying to understand how the national habitus was formed, for example by studying historical events, local customs or geographical peculiarities.
As a manager, doing this takes effort. But it increases your cultural sensitivity and it helps you to avoid stereotyping people based on their nationality. This can only increase levels of understanding in multinational teams.
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
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