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Dimensions of culture: Playing by the contextual rules

December 17, 2009

Last week I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the shift in American society over the past several decades. My friend observed that communities used to collectively solve problems (e.g. in the case of a massive structural fire, or in the instance of large-scale failed crops, etc.) as opposed to the seemingly detached, individualistic society we currently dwell within. His point was that in general, communities no longer can or will solve problems on the behalf of the whole and that our daily, loosely-coupled (Weick, 1979) interactions and lives full of distractions are symptomatic of a larger social distance.

As I considered the U.S.’s shift from an agrarian society to an industrialized society and later to an electronic society, I realized the issue was not necessarily the technology but the overarching effects of the waves of technological evolution on American culture. Not only were technological advances swift and prolific, the effects from those advances (on the humans who used them) prompted a definitive revision in cultural norms and the contexts within which members of American society communicated and functioned.

During the 1970’s Geert Hofstede conducted his groundbreaking research into cultural differences by studying IBM subsidiaries in 64 countries. Hofstede (2001) found there were five dimensions of culture which affected organizations profoundly and had discernible impacts on managers as well as the managed; especially in global organizations. The fifth dimension was added after further research conducted within Chinese organizations and utilized managers and employees as research participants. Hofstede’s findings were validated several times by researchers studying international airlines, consumer behavior and student interactions, in addition to organizations.

Power distance, as defined by Hofstede (2001), involves the extent to which less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept unequal distributions of power. Individualism/collectivism is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups where ties are loose and self-reliance is valued (individualism) or where groups are strong and cohesive and protection is exchanged for loyalty to the group (collectivism). An uncertainty avoidance culture indicates how tolerant its members are of uncertainty and ambiguity; or, the extent to which individuals feel comfortable in unstructured, new or unexpected situations. Masculine cultures are ambitious and have a tendency to polarize, have a high preference for speed and size and are oriented toward work and achievement while feminine societies are more nurturing, empathetic, and oriented toward a general quality of life, always striving for consensus and favoring small size and slow pace. Finally, long-term/short-term dimensions, per Hofstede’s research, indicates perseverance and status relationships are valued (long-term orientation) as compared with the short-term orientation that values social traditions and obligations along with the imparting of favors and/or gifts.

The implications for organizations whether domestic or global are significant. Understanding the span of cultures within the work environment inside the U.S. and elsewhere is no longer optional and such understanding can directly affect outcomes relating to negotiations, hiring, firing, promotion and everything in between. As an example, before beginning a project, a French employee of a global nonprofit asks copious questions to ensure perfect understanding of the manager’s expectations (France is a culture high in uncertainty avoidance, per Hofstede). Another example might be the case of a U.S. manager in a Latin American country who plans to promote an individual based upon her work on an important project; while other managers interject that they use a broader range of factors in this decision, including evidence of loyalty (Latin America has a high degree of collectivism). A final example could be found in the case of a British training specialist who goes to work for a Malaysian domestic company and cannot understand why his attempts to offer suggestions are coldly received; as well as the fact he is receiving poor performance reviews (Malaysia is a high power distance culture).

Over the past several decades in the U.S. we have seen an enormous amount of influence upon our indigenous culture due to the influx of people from other cultures. As workers from low to high context cultures attempt to communicate in the workplace, those same individuals also contribute to our general population in terms of mix of behavioral norms. My friend’s observation regarding our increasingly individualistic society likely represents an effect of the amalgamation of cultural convergence as well as the effects of emerging technologies. It is clear that organizations and their strategists must understand the implications of global organizational development whether or not their organization is in fact “globalized”. Organizational cultures can be very difficult to change and can also exhibit ethnocentric tendencies which might impede the organization’s ability to remain competitive, unless their respective strategies recognize and plan for the differences in the contextual and cultural dimensions of the people involved.


Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Weick, K. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 31, 2009 1:39 pm


    Hofstede did indeed begin identifying the general patterns of cultural behavior with influences of decision making, unfortunately it is an average reading and not everyone from that country thinks the same way. I did find in looking at his information many years ago it was useful for historical purposes. But as you pointed out things are changing faster than we can keep up in the technology sector. Research has shown that cultural values do not change after certain ages, unless the person becomes self actualized…even then they may not change their habits but they are aware of their own tacit prejudices.

    Now for my motive in posting back…This is a well written post and it shows you have a vast educational experience… I am curious do you know the origins of culture and why we have become different?

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