With an increasingly globalized marketplace, internationally active SMEs and large enterprises face the same challenge to efficiently operate across borders: managing cultural diversity. Understanding cultural diversity has become of crucial importance as mismanagement can result in excruciating operating costs, or even failed business ventures. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner studied cultural diversity over the last decades to identify management challenges and to provide managers with an understanding on how to approach and incorporate them into their management. Organized in 7 Cultural Dimensions, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner structured their findings into a guideline that can be used as a management support system.
The Method Edit
Trompenaars’s research has been based on a vast pool of participants with different nationalities and cultures. In over 25 years of studying the behaviour of managers in academic and field research, input from over 1,500 cross-cultural training programs in more than 25 countries, and contributions from many well-established global players which span their branches through over 60 countries have been analyzed and studied in depth. The research was designed so results would be applicable to Trompenaars’s target audience that mainly consists of managers. As such, 75 % of the included participants originated from management positions in sales, marketing, operations, etcetera, while the remaining 25% belonged to the supporting positions. Nowadays their database extends over 80,000 participants and continues to grow thanks to the internet and the new opportunities in research design. This allows a constant updating and extension of the database.
Trompenaars’ and Hampden-Turner’s 7 cultural dimensions arise from 3 main headings that were identified to cause intercultural problems: Relationships with people, perception of passage of time, and the way we incorporate our Environment into our lives. The first five dimensions deal with the first heading “Relationships with People”, the next dimension with the “Passage of Time” and the last dimension with our “Environment”:
Intercultural Issues arising from Relationships with people:
1. Universalism vs. Particularism: The degree to which the following sentence applies:
“What is good and right can be defined and always applies.”
2. Individualism vs. Communitarianism “Do people regard themselves as individuals or
as part of a group?”
3. Affective vs. Neutral: “Should the nature of our interactions be objective and
detached, or is expressing emotion acceptable?”
4. Specific vs. Diffuse: “Do we engage others in specific areas of life and single levels of
personality, or diffusely in multiple areas of our lives and at several levels of
personality at the same time?”
5. Achievement vs. Ascription: “Is status rewarded based on achievements, or ascribed
by virtue of age, class, gender, education, and so on.”
Intercultural Issues arising from Passage of Time:
6. Sequential vs. Synchronic: “How is time perceived? Do events happen one after
another, or do they pass multi-linear, where several tasks can be worked on at the
Intercultural Issues arising from differences in the Environment:
7. Internal vs. External control: “Which role do people assign to their natural
environment?” Is it something we should and can change, or should we learn to live
in the environment that is given?
1. Universalism versus Particularism Edit
The first dimension of FonsTrompenaars’ model addresses the cultural differences in adherence towards laws and regulations, or other frameworks of good and correct behavior. While a universalist places a high importance on such laws, rules, values and obligations, a particularistic would evaluate circumstances first and then decide whether the rules apply.
Universalist countries would include the USA, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavia. Particularistic countries are Russia, countries in Latin America and China.
Tips on dealing with universalism culture:
- Understand how work ties into values and beliefs
- Provide clear instructions, processes and procedures
- Keep promises
- Take time to make decisions, and then see them through
Tips on dealing with particularism culture:
- Autonomic decision making is applied
- Even after decisions are made, other people’s needs should be considered
- Be flexible
- Take time to build relationships
- Highlight important rules and policies that need to be followed
In Universalistic cultures rules are an important part of society and stand above relationships. Only one truth or reality is accepted on which the rules are applied. In particularist cultures the focus lies on personal respect and relationships are placed above the law, rules or policies. As such a universalist would insist on the enforcement of rules while a particularist would not necessarily.
A management position becomes vacant and several qualified candidates are lined up to take it. In a universalist culture, company policy would be followed and the one candidate that best matches the position’s requirements would get the job. Under particularism however, the person in charge will be more inclined to favor an applicant they have a personal relationship with, disregarding company policies as personal relationships stand above rules and regulations.
2. Individualism versus Communitarianism Edit
The second dimension covers the difference between cultures in regards to their individualistic or collectivistic behavior. While individualistic cultures would exhibit typical personality traits to be personal freedom and achievement, as well as self-determination, communitarian cultures would value their group above an individual. Communitarians feel safe within a group and repay that safety with loyalty towards it. Examples for individualistic countries are the USA, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Switzerland. Examples for Communitarian countries are Japan, China, and countries in Latin America.
Tips on dealing with individualism cultures:
- Reward individual performance
- Expect autonomic decisions
- Use offered taken initiatives
- Link people’s needs with those of the group or organization
Tips on dealing with communitarianism cultures:
- Allow creativity and learning curves based on trial and error
- Reward group performance
- Do not reward individual performance in public
- Involve others in decision making
- Avoid favoritism
Whereas in individualistic cultures business ventures would depend on voluntarily entering entrepreneurs that are perceived to be of mutual benefit to investors and the society, in a communitarian culture business ventures might be arranged in order to create value for the society as a whole instead of individualists. Individualist entrepreneurs act according to their own advantage, while communitarian employees would work because it does good for the company.
3. Specific versus Diffuse Edit
This cultural dimension concerns the degree of involvement in relationships.
In a specific culture, people keep work and personal lives separate. There is a clear and very marked heterogeneity of “living areas”. You could have problems at the workplace but once you come back home you just leave them behind. People believe that relationships do not have much impact on work objectives; they are precise, definitive and transparent. Countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands are considered to be specific cultures.
Tips on dealing with specific cultures:
- Be direct and to the point;
- Focus on people's objectives before you focus on building strong relationships
- Create and give clear instructions, processes, and procedures
- Organize meetings with time intervals and agendas
- Allow people separate work and home lives
On the other hand, in a diffused culture people see an overlap between their work and personal life. There is no clear division between different areas like workplace, family, and friends. They believe that good relationships are essential to meeting business objectives. People spend time outside work hours with colleagues and clients. The relationship goes further than just a signed contract. People are evasive, ambiguous and diplomatic. Diffuse cultures include countries as Argentina, Spain, Russia, India, and China.
Tips on dealing with diffuse cultures are:
- Build a good relationship before you focus on business objectives
- Find out about the people and the organization you work with
- Be prepared to talk about business on social occasion
- Try to avoid rejecting invitations to social events.
“One American company was trying to win a contract with a South American customer, disregard of the importance of the relationship made the company lose the deal. The American company made a very good and detailed presentation which it thought clearly demonstrated its superior product and lower price. Its Swedish competitor took a week to get to know the customer. For five days the Swedes spoke about everything except the product. On the last day the product was introduced. Though somewhat less attractive and slightly higher priced, the diffuse involvement of the Swedish company got the order. The Swedish company had learned that to do business in particular countries involves more than overwhelming the customer with technical details and fancy slides.”
4. Neutral versus Emotional Edit
This cultural dimension is about the range of feelings expressed. Are emotions controlled or do people display emotions clearly? In a neutral culture people control their emotions. Reason influences their actions more than their feelings. They do not reveal what they are thinking or feeling. Physical contact, gesturing, or strong facial expressions are often restricted. Examples of neutral cultures are countries as UK, U.S.A., Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany.
Tips on dealing with neutral cultures:
- Manage your emotions
- Be careful and conscious of your body language
- Observe people’s reactions carefully
- Avoid warm or enthusiastic behaviors as well as body contact
- Be aware that the lack of emotional tones does not mean that people is disinterested
On the other hand, in an emotional culture people express their emotions, even spontaneously. Business is a human situation and all kind of emotions are considered appropriate. Loud laughter, banging your fist on the table or leaving a conference room in anger during a negotiation is all part of business. Typical Emotional cultures include countries as Poland, Italy, France, Spain and countries in Latin America.
Tips on dealing with emotional cultures:
- Use emotions to communicate your objective and goals
- Learn to manage conflict
- Use positive language
“A British manager posted to Nigeria found that it was effective to raise his voice for important issues. His Nigerian subordinates saw this unexpected explosion by a normally self-controlled manager as a sign of extra concern. After experiencing success in Nigeria, he was posted to Malaysia. Shouting there was a sign of loss of face; his colleagues did not take him seriously and he was transferred out.”
5. Achievement versus Ascription Edit
Is status given or someone is being rewarded for high performance? The fifth cultural dimension of Trompenaars gives an answer to this question. How people view status depends a lot on the cultural group to which a person belongs.
In achievement oriented cultures someone has to show dedication, commitment, and responsibility. Only if the person has the required knowledge and the will to work hard, this person is promoted and given a higher status. In these cultures performance is the key driver of status. Some achievement-oriented cultures are the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia.
Tips on dealing with achievement-oriented cultures:
- Use titles just to reflect your competencies as individual
- Get enough data and make sure that you have knowledgeable people on your team
- Show respect to the expertise of your counterparts
At the same time there are also some cultures in which one person should be valued for who he/she is and not on what this person has achieved. A person’s background and seniority give him/her status and authority. Usually in these societies people give a lot of emphasis on titles and they frequently use them when directing to someone higher in the hierarchy. Examples of ascription cultures are France, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.
Tips on dealing with ascriptive cultures:
- Include on your team older persons and people with formal titles
- Respect the status and influence of your counterparts
Very often, it is really hard for managers coming from achieving cultures to do business with partners coming from ascriptive cultures.
“A Swedish manager (achievement-oriented) was sent to Pakistan(an ascriptive-oriented culture) to manage a certain project. During that time there was a vacant position that needed to be filled soon and there were only two candidates, equally capable, suitable for this position. As hard as it was a decision had to be taken and the manager promoted one of the candidates by selecting him based on some recent achievements. Mr. Saran, the candidate not selected, was furious with this decision and no matter what arguments the manager gave to him, for him it was unacceptable. The manager later on found out that the reason that Mr. Saran was so upset was because he received his Ph.D. two years before Mr. Khan and automatically he was expected to have more status than Mr. Khan and therefore be promoted earlier than his colleague”.
6. Sequential Time versus Synchronous Time Edit
Some cultures have the belief that “time is money”, but others prefer to be more relaxed and flexible. This dimension describes how people manage time.
Sequential time societies appreciate punctuality and like to schedule and plan things beforehand and, what is the most important, they expect people to stick to the plan. Sequential people tend to have tight schedules and time is seen as a commodity that people need to make use of in the most efficient way. Deadlines are important and are strictly respected. Typical sequential cultures are Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.A.
Tips on dealing with sequential cultures:
- Be punctual
- Follow the plan and respect the order
- Focus on the objectives and show a straight line to achieve them
On the other side in synchronous time cultures, it is very common that people work on several projects at the same time and they are flexible related to plans and commitments. Usually appointments are set approximately and it is common that people show up maybe 15 minutes or later in the meeting. In these type of cultures it is expected to “give time” to people with whom you have created a certain relationship and you do not want to give up the relationship just because of a slight delay. In synchronous time societies, people consider time as disperse and they feel that it is impossible to run after time, for this reason they have to be more relaxed and do not worry if they are late. Typical synchronous time cultures include Japan, Argentina, and Mexico.
Tips on dealing with synchronic cultures:
- Make a relation or interaction between past, present and future
- Be aware that probably your counterpart will arrive late because they are running other activities in parallel
- Be prepared for unplanned activities
Therefore doing business with synchronic people is considered to be difficult since they lose track of time very easily (causing them to be late) and they never stick to the deadlines.
“An American telecommunication company introduced a new product and Latin America was one of the most important markets where the company wanted to increase its sales. Before their visit to Mexico, the American managers prepared a tight schedule and had planned every detail carefully. They organized the presentations and the whole agenda for the day with the expectation that in one day they would close the deal with the Mexican company. But things did not really go the way the Americans expected to. First of all the Mexican team arrived one hour later. Once the meeting started the minister of communication (present in the meeting) had to leave the room and answer an urgent phone call. The presentation continued without his presence which made the Mexican team really upset. They also did not like at all the fact that the presentation focused in the coming two years rather than trying to build a long-term relationship. All these created the impression that the American team just wanted to present their offer and sign a two-year contract. But the Mexicans, typical synchronic people, prefer to build long-term relationships with their partners and discuss all the details without having the pressure of time. The Americans, typical sequential people, believe that time is money and they need to follow their plans, something very inappropriate and unacceptable for the Mexican culture .”
7. Internal versus External Control Edit
In this cultural dimension, the attitude towards the environment is identified as difference among cultures. While some cultures view their environment as something that cannot be changed and build their lives within it, other cultures see their lives to be constructed as they desire and that changes to the environment around them can be made. This dimension arises from geographical differences that had a prolonged influence on people’s behavior, such as weather and climate conditions, plagues, reoccurring catastrophes as well as wildlife. These conditions forced people into their specific fight of survival, generating behavioral codes as a heuristic for survival. Internal versus external control regards to acting with or against the environment.
Internally oriented people would prove to have a more dominant or close to aggressive behavior to their environment because they are more focused on their own ambitions, or their group’s or organization's ambitions. A stable environment is preferred while being capable of taking confrontation and resisting others shows strength and conviction.
Externally oriented people on the other hand are more flexible or adaptive and peace preserving even if they have to compromise. People around them are being treated respectfully, as harmony and responsiveness to one’s environment show sensibility.
Tips on dealing with internally oriented cultures
- Establish and agree on clear objectives
- Goals have to be tangible and clearly linked to tangible rewards
- Disagreements should be discussed openly, as it shows commitment
- If all participating parties are committed and goals robust, management by objective is afeasible management style
Tips on dealing with externally-oriented cultures:
- Take various people’s goals into account
- Directions should be reinforced and work of employees facilitated
- Conflicts are dealt with in quiet and over time
- As people shift and accept changing environments, management by environments is afeasible management style
In the case of Volkswagen’s partial takeover of Suzuki, Volkswagen’s ambitions were thwarted due to cultural differences that resulted in abrupt discontinuation of negotiations. German Managers where very direct, demanding and confronting towards their Japanese counterparts. In this case the German managers tried to push the Japanese manufacturer, by ordering them as they saw fit. Japanese management on the other hand felt treated like a subsidy rather than a partner, which ultimately resulted in a forced re-sell of the already acquired 20% in Suzuki shares. The failed takeover meant considerable losses and repercussions for VW’s further ambitions in Asia’s emerging markets.
There has been some criticism of Trompenaars’s dimensions, mostly from Geert Hofstede (1996) who stated that the theory of Trompenaars was not supported by his own database. Having conducted correlation and factor analysis at a country level, Hofstede claimed that only two dimensions could be identified and both of them were correlated with Hofstede’s Individualism dimension. Responding to this criticism, Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars pointed out the differences in their approach in 1997. They introduced two lists with contrasting assumptions attributed to Hofstede’s theory and their own, respectively. As a whole the differences in the two approaches consist of the following: Hofstede’s theory is focused more on the analysis of the variables of national culture, whereas Trompenaars model is more involved in the process of cultural creation.
Other criticisms of Trompenaars’ theory include:
- His model does not recognize the impact of personal characteristics on behavior. It considers mostly the way of behavior determined by the culture in a particular society, its customs generated by the time and other factors, for example, religion, political regime etc. However, such factors as education, upbringing, some specific traits of character may play an extremely important role in a person’s way of behavior. That falls out of Trompenaars’s field of view.
- His theory differentiates various cultures, but does not elaborate recommendations on how to act with specific cultures. But nowadays it is important to find the connection between theories covering cultural differences and their practical implementation in the real life, for example, in business and day-to-day politics. Otherwise, such approaches of Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars and other researchers in this field remain purely theoretical.
Some dilemmas could be added to the seven original cultural dimensions. It is quite doubtful that this list is complete. Trompenaars and other researchers (such as Hofstede) underlined that companies should acknowledge the differences between the cultures in which they operate. Nevertheless, some other authors including Kenichi Ohmae (Borderless World) and Theodore Levitt (Globalization of Markets) argue that national borders are diminishing and that the world should be regarded as a whole and not consisting of different countries with various cultures. They consider that together with the globalization of the markets there occurs the process of cultural globalization. In this regard they suggest regarding “regional” cultures instead of national today and the “global” culture in the future.
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