Geert Hofstede is an influential Dutch researcher in the field of cultural differences at the workplace. He has researched and discovered that people’s behaviour at work is determined, among other factors, by their cultural identity. His five national cultural dimensions, which are just as controversial as they are unique, help us to understand which cultural differences come into play at the workplace.
Different cultures have different ways of approaching problem solving, leadership and contact with colleagues and superiors. So anyone operating within similar cultural circles will notice differences less often. Those who are interested in working internationally will sooner or later have to acquire intercultural skills.
National Cultural Dimensions of the Hofstede Centre:
In an international environment, employees will encounter these cultural dimensions.
This dimension refers to the acceptance or rejection of power relations in a society. In some cultures, hierarchical power structures dominate. Everyone accepts that some people have more power than others without challenging it. In other cultural groups, people have varying degrees of power, but there is a fundamental aspiration to equality. Related to corporate culture, there are companies in which the superiors have total control over the tasks done by others. At other companies, everyone’s opinion is regarded as being of equal value. Austria, for example, is a country where they like to balance out power relations; everyone is involved in decision-making while managers foster and empower their employees (Hofstede Centre, 2014).
Individualism and collectivism
In cultural groups geared towards individualism, a lot of weight is put on self-fulfilment. In these groups, members are primarily expected to take care of themselves and their close family members. The United States is a typical ‘individualist’ country where self-fulfilment is the primary aim. In collectivist societies, people live in tightly-knit social networks. Here, more importance is attached to loyalty and mutual support. This basic attitude towards one’s social surroundings is also naturally maintained at the workplace.
“Uncertainty avoidance” refers to how well a society can handle uncertainty and change. Some cultures are very inflexible and face unexpected situations with scepticism or even panic. In contrast, other cultural groups have no problem with uncertainty, almost leaving things to chance since plans can go wrong and anything is bound to unfold spontaneously. Uncertainty avoidance can also, however, express itself in the form of rejection to social changes. In this case, clear agreements are made and structures and rules established to preserve old structures. This way, a society closes itself off from change. In the workplace, differing ways of coping with uncertainty can certainly lead to conflict, and can be interpreted as completely wrong e.g. as incompetent (devoid of strategic planning or spirit of innovation) or as inflexible (plan down to the last detail and without thinking outside the box).
Masculinity versus femininity
These two dimensions describe the degree of “feminine” and “masculine” values in a society. Hofstede assigns attributes such as modesty and caring for those in need to the feminine values. Feminine cultures, such as the Netherlands (Hofstede Centre, 2014), value a good work-life-balance. Here, gender roles are also in balance and managers strive to make consensus decisions. When there are differences of opinions among the Dutch, these are discussed until a decision can be reached. Masculine values include performance and success orientation, assertiveness and an interest in the material rewards of success. Aggressive advertising and sales strategies are also characteristic of masculine cultures.
Long and short-term orientation
The dimension “long and short-term orientation”, researched by Michael Bond in Asia, refers to a culture’s understanding of time. Our understanding of past and future defines how we act in the present. The past can have particular importance in the form of traditions, the present, with regard to current successes, and the future, in terms of long-term orientation and sustainability. People naturally attach differing degrees of importance to these three dimensions, and the value of tradition (in the sense of “that’s how we’ve always done it”) can quickly collide with a long-term orientation focused on the future (“if we do this now, it will pay off in 5 years’ time”).
A cultural understanding
The Hofstede Centre’s cultural dimensions do have some scientific flaws and do not offer a complete picture of any country’s “national culture”. Culture is a far too complicated concept to be ticked off in a few points – but the dimensions have so far not been disproved by any other researcher. That’s why we recommend looking at Hofstede’s dimensions as an impetus for developing intercultural understanding and not as a static concept that can be applied to a nation par for par.