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The Organizational Tower of Babel

Dawid Liszka 0

Your idea materialized. You finally expanded abroad and established a new office in Poland. You hired good consultants. You implemented your organization model in the new office and all the well-functioning processes, methods and tools. Well done.

Or not. Because what you may see is that instead of acting together to deliver a successful project, people tend to mentally divide themselves into US (who work well together and speak the same language) and THEM (strange foreigners who pick on us constantly).

Apparently, there is not a single, simple reason for such problem. I know from experience that it simply takes time to transform two, mid-sized, remote offices into one, well-functioning entity. There are many aspects that need to be taken into consideration, but for now, I will focus on one of them… Culture.

What is culture? There are many studies around it and definitions, but I like one of them the most:

Collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others (Geert Hofstede).

Culture is not something that we are born. Also, we have to distinguish it from our personality. We learn the culture. This programming starts during our childhood when we are being a part of a family and continues as we go. Whether we like it or not, we have a gender, we are part of a nation, we work in an organization. All these groups or categories of people unconsciously program our mind so that we can function smoothly. We are a complex combination of cultures from different sources and levels.

The most interesting for us as of now is a national culture. What makes us (our nation) different from others? Why is it important to understand differences? This time we will try to learn it consciously and this, hopefully, will help us to avoid thinking US versus THEM.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, proposed six dimensions using which the national culture can be assessed thus also compared.

Dimension Description
Power distance The extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally
Individualism The degree to which individuals are integrated into groups
Masculinity The distribution of emotional roles between the genders. Masculine cultures’ values are competitiveness, assertiveness, materialism, ambition and power, whereas feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life
Uncertainty avoidance The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these
Pragmatism The extent to which society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future
Indulgence The extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses

Hofstede also provided, through his research, the actual scores for most of the countries. To better visualize how these dimensions can be used to assess and compare national cultures I visualize scores for Poland, Norway, and Sweden, comment selected ones and draw some implications it may have on a collaboration across borders.

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Masculinity

One of the most visible differences between culture schemes for Poland and Scandinavia is a very big difference in scores for masculinity. Scandinavian culture is perceived as feminine as opposed to masculine Polish culture (64). The culture of Sweden is even more feminine than it is in Norway.

On one hand, organizations derived from feminine culture promote good working relationship with superiors and with people who cooperate well with one another, resolution of conflicts by compromise and negotiations, management by intuition and consensus or gentle approach to work-life balance. In addition, in such organizations, career is equal for both genders, which results in the high percentage of the women having managerial positions.

On the other hand, in Polish organizations managers are expected to make decisions, be assertive. It puts an emphasis on equity, competition and performance. Conflicts are resolved by fighting them out. The feedback given is more direct regardless it is positive or negative.

Power distance

Power distance is another dimension where the difference between Polish and Scandinavian culture schemes is significant.

Polish culture is ranked quite high, what means that there is a significant dependence of subordinates on their bosses and the emotional distance between them is relatively large. People accept the hierarchical order. This is indeed very characteristic for many Polish companies that have a complex organizational structure and barrier between managers and employees is usually high.

Scandinavian culture promotes opposite scheme. Hierarchy is for convenience only, people have equal rights and power is decentralized. Management facilitates and counts on the experience and knowledge of subordinates. Employees expect to be consulted. Communication is quite direct and focused on reaching consensus.

Uncertainty avoidance

The last, but not least dimension I would like to comment on is the Uncertainty Avoidance. The difference between Poland and Scandinavia is above 40 points and Poland is ranked very high (93), unlike Sweden that scores very low (29). It means that the members of Polish culture are threatened by unknown and ambiguous situations. There is an emotional need for rules, people have an urge to be busy and work hard. They also promote precision and punctuality as the norm. Security is an important element in individual motivation.

Implications

How would these cultural differences impact your day-to-day work? Apparently, all these are generalizations and are derived from national cultures so do not treat it as given. Here is how certain situations I experienced could be seen from different perspectives:

  • I feel that roles in my project are not precisely defined and I do not exactly know what is expected of me
  • I think he is not proactive enough. He is an important member of the project team and it seems that he sticks to his role too much, waiting for the tasks instead of finding them himself

Such behavior can be partially explained by the big difference in Power Distance index. In the Polish culture, people expect to have a well-defined role and responsibilities. They also respect other team members roles and avoid interfering with them. In Scandinavian culture roles and hierarchy are not respected. People usually are expected to get involved in a broader spectrum of team activities. Additionally, Poles want to know what exactly is expected from them (high score on Uncertainty Avoidance), unlike Scandinavians that may not be concerned that much.

  • I do not understand why she cannot make a decision regarding this issue herself with an authority and expertise she posses
  • We need to discuss the issue within the team and make decision collectively so that everyone is involved

This situation can also be explained by the big difference in Power Distance index strengthened by the difference in Masculinity index. Egalitarian Scandinavian culture strives to reach the consensus, involve all the team members in the decision making process, while in the Polish culture it is generally accepted that the manager has a final and a most powerful voice in a discussion.

  • I would like to get an honest feedback on what I could do better and improve as the project team member
  • We need to make sure that he is a satisfied member of our project and we should focus on his strengths rather than pinpoint various issues

Here we have an example where Masculinity index comes to play. Scandinavian culture resolves conflicts by compromise and negotiations and avoids open conflicts.

  • I think this project is not sufficiently planned. I expect to have a precise plan on how we will reach our milestones and our project manager seems to not share the same need.
  • We cannot know all details of this project at this stage so let’s plan the first iteration and meanwhile we will figure out the remaining part

This behavior may be a result of a big difference on Uncertainty Avoidance index. Polish culture strives to eliminate risks and be prepared for various scenarios. Unlike Scandinavian one, which accepts uncertainty and unknown future.
These are just a few examples of how a culture can influence the way we see the same situation. Only the awareness of its possible implications puts us in the good position. At least we can take it into consideration when trying to understand a different perspective. However, do not be blinded and keep in mind that…

… organizational culture shared by a company (all offices) can reduce differences derived from national cultures; cultures may interpenetrate

… personality of an individual (although affected by cultures) can contradict stereotypes derived from national cultures

… cultures are learnt thus they evolve and change over time

… it is easy to explain incompetence and lack of skills of individuals by assigning them to various culture schemes

“Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got”

Peter F. Drucker

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