3.6.1 The Hofstede framework
Hofstede’s landmark research has typically formed the basis for identifying differences in national cultures in university management courses. His research looking at well over 100,000 IBM employees in 53 subsidiaries covering 50 countries provides an insightful look at the similarities and differences in cultural values. The essence of national culture for Hofstede is what he terms ‘national mental programming’, which is that part of our collective learning ‘that we share with other members of our nation, region, or group but not with members of other nations, regions, or groups’ (Hofstede, 1983, p. 76). He suggests that four dimensions discriminate between national cultures in the workplace.
Hofstede’s four dimensions
Power distance – This is the extent to which a society expects a high degree of power difference between levels in an organisation. A high score reflects a belief in an established hierarchy, while a low score reflects a belief in equal rights.
Uncertainty avoidance – This is the extent to which society willingly accepts ambiguity and risk. High score societies are risk averse.
Individualism (as opposed to collectivism) – Societies high on this emphasise the role of the individual and expect people to take care of themselves and their immediate family. Low score societies are more concerned with the greater good of the group.
Masculinity – A high score here reflects a society that holds values that in the West were traditionally male – competitiveness, assertiveness, ambition and concern for material possessions. A low score society would reflect a more nurturing orientation, emphasising consideration of others.
When Hofstede looked at how societies scored on these dimensions he found four major clusters within Europe:
- A Germanic group (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), tending towards high masculinity and low power distance.
- A mainly Scandinavian group (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark but also the Netherlands) tending towards high individualism, low masculinity and low power distance.
- An Anglo-Saxon group (Britain and Ireland) with high individualism and masculinity and low power distance and uncertainty avoidance.
- A mainly Latin group (France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, but also Belgium) with high uncertainty avoidance and high power distance.
By comparison outside Europe, Japan scored highly on masculinity and uncertainty avoidance, while the USA scored highly on individualism but low on uncertainty avoidance.
While this is again a highly simplified approach to a complex issue, you may find it a useful starting point for thinking about your experience of working with colleagues from different national backgrounds. Hofstede’s work has, however, attracted a number of critics. For instance, McSweeney (2002) and Smith (2002) have expressed concern about the generalisability of the samples, the levels of analysis, the comparison of political boundaries (countries) to culture and the validity of the instruments of measurement. The links between the dimensions as measured and actual behaviour to be found in organisations are also not made explicit. Hofstede’s assumptions of the homogeneity of each studied culture have also been challenged by Sivakumar and Nakata (2001). Hofstede’s use of masculinity/femininity as the label for his fourth dimension was unfortunate as this is an outdated way of describing what are really just two distinct approaches to interpersonal relationships at work. However, Hofstede’s model, despite the criticism, has represented the most popular approach to cultural assessment (Rarick and Nickerson, 2008).
Stop and reflect
From your own experience, to what extent do you agree with Hofstede’s descriptions?