Culture Matters: Understanding My Colleagues (and me) Better

Culture is a collective programming of the human mind

One thing I love with my job is working with people from many different countries. This not only makes you learn about other cultures, you also learn a lot about your own.

But working together across cultures is also sometimes a challenge. To learn more  I participated in an intercultural management training last week. This is my summary and thoughts. I have focused on data and examples for countries I often work with. My class consisted of colleagues from our offices in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France and Sweden.


The theories and models we learnt and discussed were based on Geert Hofstede’s scientific innovation, the dimension concept. It was first formed after a world-wide employee survey by IBM around 1970. The model describes four main dimensions that define a culture. For each dimension a country can score between 0-100.

The Four Dimensions of Culture

1. Hierarchy

“Level of acceptance of people, who have no power, of the unequal spread of power in their society”.  Countries scoring high typically have hierarchy as the norm, more centralisation and more managers. There is also a higher degree of inequality.

Examples: India but also France score high while the Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, UK and Austria score low.

My reflection: I thought Germany would score much higher on hierarchy but learnt that what I have taken for signs of hierarchy is more about structure and focus on expertise. My French colleagues were however not surprised to see their high score here.

2. We versus I

This dimensions describes whether people are more group oriented (extended families) or more “I” oriented (nuclear families). Where lies the loyalty?

In group oriented cultures, peoples’ own opinions are less important, focus is on the group. Relationship is more important than task and there is a high context communication.

Examples: India (and most countries in Asia), south America, Africa and also eastern Europe are more group oriented while the rest of Europe together with the Anglo-Saxon countries are “I” oriented.

3. Process versus Goals

Admire the winner or feel sympathy for the loser? A high score here tells that achieving goals, winning and decisiveness are important in society while a low score indicates that process, consensus and growing insights are more important.

Examples: UK, Austria and Germany score high (but Japan beats them all!) while Netherlands and Scandinavian countries score low (Sweden lowest of all).

Comment: this dimension was originally called Masculine/Feminine which I think covers it better even though I understand why it’s not used. In masculine cultures management style is more tough, while the feminine cultures tend to have a more tender one.

4. Anxiety Avoidance

How does culture adapt to change and cope with uncertainty?  In a high scoring culture  there is a preference to proven methods, expertise is highly valued and there is a slower adaption of innovation. People also show their emotions more and usually have more stressful lives.

Examples: Belgium, France and Germany score high while UK and Sweden score low.

My reflection: does a smoother adaption to change, less structure and fewer rules make agile transformation easier? What if we add also a low score for hierarchy?

Culture Clusters

By grouping countries with similar characteristics we then get six culture clusters, five of them described below:

1. Challenge

The anglo-saxion countries form the Challenge cluster which is defined by strong “I” orientation, low hierarchy, strong goal orientation and a low level of anxiety avoidance.

2. iTask

To simplify a little the  iTask cluster (Nordics and Netherlands) shares three of four dimensions with Challenge. The only (but significant) difference being that the iTask culture is strongly process oriented.

3. Clockwork

The Clockwork cluster (Germany, Austria) shares “I” and Goal orientation with Challenge but scores medium in hierarchy and has a high level of anxiety avoidance.

4. Relationship

India can be found in the Relationship cluster which is characterised by a group orientation and a high degree of hierarchy. But India also has a low level of anxiety avoidance and this is interesting: there will be limited authority and significant inequality but at the same time society will have limited amount of rules.

Reflection: India is fascinating!

5. Planetary

Finally, France and Belgium are found in the Planetary cluster. This cluster is also “I” oriented. The level of hierarchy is high and the level of anxiety avoidance is very high. There is a goal orientation but not as strong as in the Challenge cluster.


I think many of the distinguishing behaviours in different cultures were quite well known to all of us. But I did get a deeper understanding of where these behaviours come from and what underlying values form them.

Well, at the end of the day the only person you can change is yourself. “Cultural diversity is about you.” The more you learn and try to understand the better you can work together.

Fish discover water last


Appendix: Details for some countries

In this group


We vs I

Process vs Goals

Anxiety Avoidance

Challenge UK 38 90 65 36
iTask Sweden, NL 33, 34 74, 81 7, 17 26, 50
Clock Work Germany 37 65 67 68
Relationship India 74 48 65 43
Planetary Belgium, France 64, 65 77, 75 56, 49 89, 88

Source: Culture Matters

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