Discovering cultural acumen through social science

Project GLOBE defines itself as: a network of 170 social scientists and management scholars from 61 cultures throughout the world, working in a coordinated long-term effort to examine the interrelationships between societal culture, organizational culture and practices, and organizational leadership. The meta-goal of the Global Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (GLOBE) Research Program is to develop an empirically based theory to describe, understand, and predict the impact of cultural variables on leadership and organizational processes and the effectiveness of these processes. (GLOBE monograph, Cultural influences on leadership and organizations) Both Mansour Javidan and Robert House are key members of GLOBE and are important members of the content of what I wish to discuss in this article, as they wrote “Cultural acumen for the global manager: Lessons from Project GLOBE.” (2001) Javidan is the current director of the Najafi Global Mindset Institute at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and House is known for being the author of the Path-Goal theory (which attempts to explain the relationship between leader and follower in the workplace).

Understanding GLOBE’s mission statement is important in understanding GLOBE’s stance on becoming a culturally proficient manager in a global organization. In Javidan and House’s article, the authors define cultural acumen as: the knowledge about cultural differences, knowing similarities among countries, understanding the implications of differences, and using and developing culturally appropriate skills. However, while GLOBE maintains that their goals are to “understand and appreciate cultural values, practices, and subtleties in different parts of the world,” their chief source of inspiration for the cultural dimensions comes from Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social scientist who categorized cultural differences around the world into four basic categories, all of which are included within GLOBE’s cultural dimensions along with five additional dimensions.

GLOBE’s cultural dimensions are assertiveness, future orientation, gender differentiation (Hofstede’s masculinity), uncertainty avoidance, power distance, collectivism-individualism, in-group collectivism, performance orientation, and human orientation. These cultural dimensions are what Javidan and House term motivators, or desires in a particular occupation, very similar to Edgar Schein’s career anchors (2006), except that unlike the concept of career anchors which deal primarily in workplace progression, cultural dimension motivators are an unchangeable Spinozan concept that is chiefly defined by the worker’s home culture. GLOBE’s definition of culture, therefore, is: “a set of shared values and beliefs.”

To appreciate Javidan and House’s presentation of GLOBE’s cultural dimensions, one must first recognize that they are writing from a positional bias. For example, in the article Javidan and House address the issue of performance orientation by describing strong performance oriented cultures are moving towards “deliverable results” while weak performance oriented cultures function “without any commitments or desire for results.” Living in a foreign country myself, I will be the first to admit my bias every time I step into the classroom; I feel guilt when I cannot identify and rigorously defend the results of my pedagogy, and I often reflect upon the Chinese staff at my school with a certain amount of contempt as I cannot visually ascertain and intuit that they are seeking results, and therefore view them in a lesser light as being less or not committed at all.

Therefore, for me as an expatriate educator to operate from a bias even though I have lived in this country for almost ten years and then to read about American scholars promoting a positional bias in cultural acumen, I find myself at a loss. For many Chinese teachers at my university, the concept of “deliverable results” is achieved not through the score of a test or even from the personal learning of a student, but rather from the value of the classroom relationship being maintained and the harmony of each in his or her station upholding that station to the best of his or her ability. One of my students flatly told me that when a teacher assigns him homework, he does not do the homework for himself but rather for the teacher, as a gift to the teacher. In such an environment, how can we possibly assign the concept of performance orientation, when what we perceive to be green is actually blue?

Javidan and House describe the concept of uncertainty avoidance as “the society’s reliance on social norms and procedures to alleviate the unpredictability of future events.” Even approaching this description I am at a loss for how to interpret the culture in which I live. The survey example question that Javidan and House utilize is: “In this society [China, for example], societal requirements and instructions are spelled out in detail so citizens know what they are expected to do,” with a question breadth between 1 (strongly disagree) to 8 (strongly agree). In other words, cultures that score high in uncertainty avoidance are “focused on facts” while countries low in uncertainty avoidance operate “without clear conclusions.” Is this really the case?

China traditionally ranks very low on uncertainty avoidance charts, which would insinuate by Hofstede’s definition that mainland Chinese culture is philosophically relativistic and lacks organizational strength (1980). While I have struggled with conclusions in China (especially regarding job expectations), there are just as many unsaid expectations that are just as important and require a different ear to discern. Success and failure in China often revolve not around your ability to function in a given task, but your ability to discern what the task is and then complete the task. China is not any less specifically task-oriented than Germany, except in the language used to communicate the tasks.

Finally, Javidan and House explain that for societies weak in humane orientation “generosity is not a key criterion in the process” (for example, Spain), as “the process and message tend to be simpler, more direct, and less focused on being supportive or caring.” I dare anyone to walk up to a Spaniard or German and tell them directly that they are not being generous with their words, and listen to what he or she might have as a response. Growing up in a German home with a father who spoke German as a second-language, while the surface of the words may not sound supportive, there is a great deal of support in the meaning. As scholars we must take care with our bias that we do not delegitimize another culture just because we do not understand it.

References

Hofstede, G. (1980). Motivation, leadership, and organization: Do American theories apply abroad? Organizational Dynamics: Summer:42-63.

Javidan, M., & House, R. (2001). Cultural acumen for the global manager: Lessons from Project GLOBE. Organizational Dynamics, 29(4):289-305.