Values in Culture
What is it that defines success in international business nowadays? Culture! This is not only about team culture but the alignment of communication between people coming from different cultures. Culture is at the heart of failure and success. Businesses fail because they send managers and leaders into an international environment who just go with the knowledge of basic stereotypes and leadership skills. What is often lacking is a deep awareness of the culture, and the differences in values that makes business relationships really successful. Often on the surface a relationship seems good, and people can get a long way with what they consider as rapport, but when it comes to the understanding of the values, and the little frictions and differences, these often turn out to become big once pressure goes up and stress levels go up as well.
What is a value in culture? Well, a value is what is important to someone or a group. When a culture from a certain culture has a certain value, it basically means that there is a collective programming done from childhood into adult life which is inherent in many different aspects of life.
The most well-known and well-executed research on culture is from Professor Geert Hofstede and his son Gert-Jan. Geert Hofstede defined culture as the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others. There are four elements that make up culture, namely signs, heroes, rituals and values. These are part of an onion ring whereby the value is in the middle of the onion because that is the most difficult part to change.
In his research, Geert Hofstede found amazing differences and similarities between countries in 6 indexes: Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long-term Orientation, and Indulgence.
The results of these indexes are coming from values from a particular culture. Let me give you some examples.
If a group values the group over the individual you will have different ways of communicating and leadership. This will be reflected in many aspects, also in doing business. If you have a country like, say China, which values the group much more than the individual and on the other hand the Netherlands, which values the individual much more than the group, you can imagine the differences in doing business.
In China people are much more focused on what the team and the group does and in the Netherlands you will see that the individual expression and evaluation is much more important.
If a country values more Power Distance like in China or less Power Distance like in the Netherlands, then in China the boss’s wishes are executed and not challenged. However, if you are in the Netherlands you are expected to challenge your boss because there is much less, if almost no distance between you and your boss. And the word boss is not even applicable in the Netherlands. If a manager comes from China, India or Russia to lead a group of people in the Netherlands with predominantly Dutch values, they will find that the group does not except this manager to tell them what to do. They want to be involved as an equal, and want to be valued for taking their own responsibility in their work.
If a country values achievement rather than well-being, then you will have an American approach which appreciates achievement versus a Dutch group who places a higher value on the well-being of everyone, and having the best grades in school or results in business is not the first priority, because the well-being comes first. An example in business is that someone from America would want to be rewarded with a personal bonus and being the best. Also employee of the month systems work better there compared to the Netherlands where it is good to do your best, but showing off that you are the best is not part of the culture. And therefore if a specific financial reward is given, then similar employees should have similar rewards, almost regardless of performance, or they should at least be given some reward too.
Going beyond stereotypes, general rapport building and experience in international business gets you far, but real knowledge of the values of a culture and being aware and understanding the implications on a daily basis gets you further!
Founder & Associate partner of Hofstede Insights