How Hofstede’s insights can help you understand the strength and weaknesses of your business

by Didier Marlier on Saturday June 30th, 2018

I recently took a flight in Europe (so, I am not aiming at France, since Air France are always on strike). It seemed half full but the boarding took an unnecessary long time to be completed and was completely chaotic, both on my way to and back from that country. And the rest of the flights were a succession of mediocrity and customer abuse, as per to be expected after the pathetic boarding.

Out of curiosity and in order to see if national culture (still quite strong for many airlines, acting like a proud flagship of their nation) could explain what I had seen, I studied (on the excellent Hofstede site) the national culture traits of that country and what I had experienced, suddenly came less as a surprise:

  • Power Distance: That country’s national culture has a very high Power Distance. Several studies suggest that a high Power Distance destroys financial value as it creates fear (implying a play safe, obedient, political and “guess what the boss wants to hear before you answer” sort of culture) and destroys Trust (implying severe control costs). It was very clear that satisfying the boss, even though his instructions made no sense, was of paramount importance to a subservient crew, rather than please the customer.
  • Individualism: That country is low on Individualism. For Hofstede, Individualism is “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies people belong to ‘in groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.” The problem with a too collectivist culture is that responsibility and ownership may be diluted and people hide behind orders and procedure, comforted in that, if the culture is also high on Power Distance. Collectivist cultures may also be quicker into drifting into the Bonding (us vs them) defence mechanism, which was clearly visible on this aircraft…
  • Masculinity: That country is low on “Masculinity”. Hofstede explains that “a high Masculine score indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success […] A low score (Feminine) means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. The fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).” I personally favour a Feminine culture and was puzzled by its potential negative impact on the pathetic service we were getting on board. It dawned on me, though that blending high Power Distance (fear from the boss), high collectivism (creating what we call a High Support/Low Challenge culture) and high Feminine culture would bring staff to preserve the hands that feed them and that getting along with the boss and colleagues would be more important than satisfying passengers “who we would only have to suffer for two hours”…
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: That country is low on Uncertainty Avoidance. For the Dutch cross culture management guru, it represents “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 is reflected in the score on Uncertainty Avoidance. Chris Parker, an IMD Professor used to talk about “Assumed Usefulness” (Skinner’s pigeons etc.) when providing feedback about corporate cultures which we deresponsibilising their people through alienating and useless procedures. A high Uncertainty Avoidant national culture has clearly riddled that airline with unnecessary procedures which, for sure, don’t aim at satisfying the customer.
  • Long Term Orientation: The low score of that national culture meant “that this culture prefers normative thought over pragmatic. People in such societies have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth; they are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results” and it was very clear that engaging into repeat business and long-term relationship with a quasi-captive market, wasn’t the main focus of that airline.
  • Indulgence: That country’s low indulgence score suggested that “People with this orientation have the perception that their actions are restrained by social norms and feel that indulging themselves is somewhat wrong.” And, it was definitely visible that these employees had no fun nor pride in doing their job and, therefore wouldn’t go the extra mile to satisfy their customers. Which is exactly what it felt like

Of course, I would assume Hofstede’s model to be less helpful in a multinational firm, composed of the sums of its parts. Also, strong and successful organizations have their own culture, different from their national roots or from the place they operate. I remember that when working for the “true Nokia” (the one truly living its values of “Connecting People”), whether in Brazil, China, India, Finland or US, there was a culture overarching the national ones. But still Nokia’s culture was influenced by its national roots and, as its “nth” resurrection shows, Sisu is part of it!

70% of an organization’s culture comes from the behaviours of its leaders. Make sure you inspire the right culture in those daily Moments of Truth with your customers, your employees and Society at large.

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