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Working in diverse teams
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5 Tips for improving communication between different cultural norms

You can probably imagine that having an understanding of where an individual or team lies on Hofstede’s dimensions of culture is helpful when you are trying to communicate in the workplace. The cosmopolitan character of the modern workplace makes it very likely that you are going to have a person from another culture within your team. It is also quite possible that at some stage you will be a guest-worker in another country.

Take a look at Table 2 below, taken from the MindTools website, which gives a set of practical observations that correlate with high or low indices along each of the dimensions in Hofstede’s model. Now ask yourself if you recognise any of these as habits in yourself or in your country. Then revisit Activity 4 and your own estimate of your cultural scores along with the score given for your country. How true does this seem to be for you in terms of the kind of communication style you prefer?

Table 2 Practical observations of Hofstede’s dimensions of culture
Power distance index (PDI) High PDI
  • Recognise and show that you acknowledge the status of the leader.
  • Do not push against the authority of the leader.
  • Be aware that you may need to go above the leader in order to get answers to what is happening or learn how to tackle the situation.
  • Try to delegate as much as possible.
  • If people are going to be involved by a decision then try and involve them in the decision making.
Individualism (IDV) High IDV
  • Acknowledge individual efforts and achievements.
  • Be aware that the person is unlikely to want to mix social and work life.
  • Encourage debate and make space for people to share and discuss their ideas.
  • Keep a check on emotions and feelings that could disrupt the harmony of the group.
  • If you are going to give negative feedback don’t do this in public.
  • Saying ‘no’ can mean someone loses face.
  • Politeness demands that you are expected to refuse an invitation several times before accepting.
Masculinity (MAS) High MAS
  • Need to be aware that gender roles are differentiated in this culture.
  • Working long hours can be what is expected and doing so shows commitment.
  • Clear targets can be motivational so that the person or group can show what they have achieved.
  • Negotiation and collaboration are key to success.
  • Input from all levels is likely to be expected.
  • Work-life balance and workplace flexibility is important and likely to lead to better performance from staff .
Uncertainty avoidance (UAI) High UAI
  • Provide clear goals and expectations.
  • Recognise that there may be cultural rules that are unspoken and which you can’t see.
  • Emotion or anger can be a normal part of the conversation.
  • Keep the structure loose.
  • Respect is earned by those who are seen to be able to cope under all circumstances.
  • Titles and experience are less important.
(Adapted from MindTools, 2018)

Activity 5 Improved cultural communication

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

In the case study in Section 3, Susan says she struggled for nearly a year to understand cultural differences which were preventing her from being effective in the schools where she was working. While she had an induction to living in Japan before travelling there, this was clearly insufficient for briefing her in the way she could communicate with colleagues in the school. There is a sense that this learning could only take place over time and there was unlikely to be a quick fix, but it might have been helpful if she had considered Hofstede’s dimensions of culture.

Look again at the four bullet points in the case study where Susan describes some of the specific problems she encountered and struggled to understand. Now compare the statistics that Hofstede’s research came up with for Japan and for the UK (Figure 7).

A bar chart showing Hofstede’s cultural difference scores in comparison with Japan and the UK.
Figure 7 Hofstede’s cultural difference scores, UK compared with Japan

According to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, where do the greatest differences in score lie between the UK and Japan? How could this knowledge have helped Susan improve her communication with the Japanese teachers of English?

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According to Hofstede’s cultural difference score, the greatest cultural differences between the UK and Japan are the scores of individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. Looking at these four cultural differences, the top tips that Susan could have taken on board as part of her induction to living and working in Japan are:

  1. Gender roles are going to be more differentiated so there may be expectations of how she is to behave and when working with male teachers she may need to take this into account.
  2. Working long hours is a way of showing commitment so while sitting in the office doing nothing seems to be a waste of time, it will show that you are committed to the job and is recommended.
  3. Assume that there are cultural rules that you do not necessarily understand, so ask someone you know well to explain if there is something which seems strange or difficult to you.
  4. Be careful of saying ‘no’ in public situations to ensure that the person you are speaking to does not lose face. Going on the skiing trip could have been a way of building team relationships in a less formal environment than the workplace.
  5. Expect working culture to be more formal from the UK. There are likely to be situations outside work where the team will meet in a less formal way – try to attend these events though be aware that as a woman you may not be expected to behave in the same way as you would in the UK.
  6. Always think of the harmony of the group and try not to disrupt this.