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Internal communicators: Should you be customizing your global values in some countries to reflect the local culture?

Denise CoxDenise Cox·

I invited Andy Blacknell, who has been a guest on a number of our webinars, to write about organizational culture and address the issues that Internal Communicators face when disseminating corporate culture and values following international expansion, acquisition or mergers.  

Andrew Blacknell is a Change & Communication Consultant with over twenty years experience in internal communication and change management – both in-house and as a consultant based in Europe and North America. His expertise includes employee research, employee engagement, change management, employee value propositions and leadership development. Andrew formerly led the UK Communication & Change Management practice at Towers Watson and now runs his own consulting business.

Supporting one company culture internationally might demotivate your employees!

I had just completed my first engagement survey for a global corporation. Mexico had the most positive responses and Japan had the most negative. I thought that was worthy of further investigation until I discovered that Mexico is always more positive and Japan always more negative. Perhaps I should spend more time with the people of Mexico?

Many organizations spend a lot of time defining and aspiring to live by global values or cultures.  Can an organization have a globally consistent culture? Is Twitter’s “seek diverse perspectives“ possible in every culture? In the 1970s Dutch psychologist, Dr. Geert Hofstede identified six cultural dimensions that have become an internationally recognized standard. These dimensions are still widely used today to help global organizations act locally and to educate and prepare employees before international transfers1:

1. Power/Distance (PD)

refers to how a culture responds to people with and without power. High power distance cultures, like Russia and Malaysia, accept an unequal distribution of power and are less inclined to challenge authority. People “know their place” and accept “closed-door meetings”. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, suggested that the main reason for Korean Airlines poor safety record in the 1980s was not pilot experience or plane type but culture. Korea has a high PD score and, therefore, the most junior pilots did not challenge their senior officers sufficiently quickly in a crisis. Recently, some have offered the same diagnosis for Malaysian Airlines horrible string of accidents in 2014. Malaysia has a high PD score.

2. Individualism (IDV)

reflects the strength of the ties people have with others in their community. The UK and USA have very high IDV scores. They value freedom and privacy and expect individual reward for hard work. Consumerism and materialism are derived in part from this value. By contrast, China takes more interest in other people’s wellbeing and places much greater value on (the rights of) groups and communities. The tightly choreographed opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics involving thousands of people moving in unison would not have been possible or appropriate at the London Olympics in 2012.

3. Uncertainty Avoidance (UA)

describes how well cultures cope with situations where the outcome is uncertain. Cultures with high scores, like France, Spain and to a lesser extent Germany, avoid uncertainty by creating structures, procedures, and rules. Countries with lower scores, like Ireland and China, enjoy change, will accept risk and value difference.

4. Masculinity (MAS)

is how much a society sticks with traditional male and female roles. Countries with high scores, like Japan, see men and women in gender-defined roles. Countries with low scores, like the Netherlands, see men and women as equally able to play the same roles.

5. Long Term Orientation (LTO)

considers how much a culture maintains links with its past and deals with the future. Low LTO countries, such as Australia, USA, and Mexico, have a strong concern with establishing the absolute truth. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results. High scoring countries, such as Germany, China, and Japan, see truth as more dependent on the situation, time and context. They value saving, education and change as essential to preparing for the future

6. Indulgence (IDU)

defines the extent to which people in a culture try and restrain and control their desires and impulses. Indulgent cultures, like those in Nigeria, UK, and US, are more optimistic and want to realize their desires so they place more emphasis on leisure and fun.

What these scores mean for internal communicators

Local people are less likely to “communicate fearlessly” (a twitter value) or “challenge the status quo” (a Starbucks value) in Russia and Malaysia (high PD countries). Similarly, the focus on short-term (quarterly) results of many American companies will not engage employees in high LTO countries like Germany and Russia.

Hofstede’s model tells us that even the best global organizations cannot build a homogenous global culture. Western consumers are increasingly anti-big, avoiding global brands and returning to “local” brands. Large corporations are trying to appear smaller and more local by acquiring local brands.  Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (Unilever), Innocent Smoothies (Coca Cola), Green and Black’s chocolate (Cadbury/Kraft) and Copella apple juice (Tropicana/Pepsi) are among the many formerly independent brands now owned by large corporations. The UK’s largest retailer, Tesco, acquired a “family” coffee chain called Harris and Hoole but made sure that its involvement was largely invisible to regulars.

Organizations like Starbucks, Apple and Google have global values and aspire to a global culture. However, these global values must respect Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. These dimensions are rooted deeply in a country’s history, character and psychology. Success lies in blending the organization’s golden rules (values and culture) into the local culture.

Internal communicators should use Hofstede’s dimensions to identify the areas of greatest cultural difference across their global workforce.  Then they should review and adapt their vision and values to reflect these differences without changing the core.

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