oikosNewsoikos and Cross Cultural Management: Embracing differences and enjoying similarities

oikos and Cross Cultural Management: Embracing differences and enjoying similarities

10 July 2018 | News

The world has shrunk immensely over the last few decades. As the access to mobility grows and connecting becomes easier, our offices are being filled with lively conversations held in the multitude of different languages, and our lunch breaks are lightened up with anecdotes encountered during business trips to the remote places of the world. But beyond this euphoria, we face a number of underlying challenges: experiencing new cultures might be intimidating, our skills of dealing with diverse groups fragile and our understanding of different cultures may be biased. Addressing these challenges becomes ever more important for organizations such as oikos, that gathers over 1200 members from 50 cities and 24 countries. The concept of Cross Cultural Management is, hence, gaining momentum to provide frameworks for understanding and managing our cultural peculiarities, as well as to offer some solutions and guidelines.

Cross Cultural Management is the study of management in a cross-cultural context. It includes the study of the influence of societal culture on managers and management practice as well as the study of the cultural orientations of individual managers and organization members. At the individual level the values, cognitive structures, and reactions of individuals to their cultural context and experience figure prominently.

To provide insights on Cross Cultural Management, we brought together our community and introduced different frameworks, like Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions and Kluckhohn and Strodtbeek’s Value Orientation Theory at the oikos webinar dedicated to the topic and organized by our leadership program – LEAP and the Knowledge Exchange Expedition. These frameworks can help interpret different cultures and may offer some direction on how to respond to unfamiliar cultural situations.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory suggestions that there are 6 dimensions that distinguish cultures from one another:

  • Power Distance – Extent of inequality of power distribution from the perspective of the lesser powerful members of the society.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance – Extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.
  • Individualism Versus Collectivism – Tendency of people to look after themselves & their immediate family vs how people belong to groups or collectives and look after each other in exchange for loyalty.
  • Masculinity Versus Femininity – Dominant values in society are success, money, and things vs dominant values are caring for others and quality of life.
  • Long-term Versus Short-term Orientation – Valuing perseverance, thrift, adaptation to circumstances vs reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition and personal steadiness and stability
  • Indulgence Versus Restraint – Society allowing relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life vs a society controlling gratification of needs and regulating it by means of strict social norms.

Kluckhohn and Strodtbeek’s Value Orientation Theory holds at its core an assumption that cultures respond to universal problems (relation to the environment, the relationship among people, mode of human activity, nature of human beings, orientation to time and space) by choosing one of the limited value-based solutions. For example, according to the theory, there are only 3 value-based solutions to the problem posed by relation to the environment:

  • Subjugation to the Environment: Perception of being dominated by physical forces and/or subject to the will of a Supreme Being.
  • Harmony with the Environment: Behave in concert with the physical environment and other systems in the world around us.
  • Mastery over the Environment: Perception of being in control of the environment.

Those who live in harmony with or try to master the environment might find it hard to communicate with the cultures that place full trust in divine powers. “There was a country I went to that had a strong religious tradition. Adapting to their ideals was tough because you do not necessarily agree with everything, especially when there are inequalities between gender, age, etc.” – says Anita Negri, former oikos President, an Italian living in France. However, Anita is quick to point out that she found a way to try and overcome the problem: “In that case, I tried to understand their motifs and I tried to share my motifs too.”

Eike Haas, former oikos EB member and a German based in Switzerland explains: “Whether you want to achieve goals as a part of a multicultural team or get along with locals when backpacking a foreign country – I believe you need to create common realities, continuously build moments of understanding. When humans from different cultures interact, they may interpret mimics, gestures and verbal communication differently – even if they speak the same language. Because they learned different connotations and communication patterns in their respective cultural environments and associate different meanings with seemingly universal communication elements. Adaptation in this context means to reflect on the other’s reactions and identify those differences – to assimilate the other’s cultural environment. And this is required from all team members, from foreigners as well as locals.”

At oikos, keeping an open mind, considering our differences and enjoying similarities is a key to a successful cross cultural communication. “We are more sensitive to everyone in the team, that helps in smooth functioning. For example, I remember during the FutureLab 2016, the organizing team had considered the dates for Diwali which is a big festival celebrated in India. This enabled everyone to be available” – says Nimisha Ghorpade, our alumni from India, currently residing in Mumbai. “While we’re all different, we all share the same passion for sustainability – which connects us, however significant our differences. That allowed me to connect with these peers and deepen my understanding of different cultures, how they approach sustainability – and also to identify and overcome some prejudices in my thinking” – points out Eike.

But we have to recognize that even our most enriching and diverse experiences provide only a limited understanding of a different culture. “I think we can never stop learning about each other’s cultures. Since it would be difficult to perfectly understand every single person’s reactions, crossing those with his/her culture, circumstance, traditions, and the many many more aspects that make a human being… Maybe what we should all learn about each other’s cultures is: not to make stereotypes the only story, not to be offended so easily, not to take ‘normal’ behaviors or habits for granted, not to see everything as a zero-sum game but to comprehend the spectrum instead. Most importantly we should understand that we are lucky to have certain technological means nowadays that enable interconnectedness and unification, so let’s create opportunities out of that instead of issues. It is just a matter of keeping our minds open!” – explains Anita.

The open, interconnected world offers many exciting opportunities whether at the workplace or beyond the walls of our offices. We have to embrace differences, rather than fear it; delve into our similarities, rather than merely glance at them; and come to term with an idea that there are limits to how much we understand about a different culture, but never to how much we want to know about the world beyond our milieu.

Learn more about our interviewees:

Anita Negri is oikos Maastricht alumna and served as a President of oikos International from 2014 to 2016.  She was born in Italy and worked and studied in over 15 cities. Anita has always had a passion for education, sustainability leadership and HR development and engaged in these throughout her studies and work experiences. Currently, she works in Paris, France. Read her full interview here

Eike Haas  is oikos Witten alumnus and was an Executive Board Member of oikos International in 2011 and 2012. Coming from a small town in north Germany, Eike has worked in France, India and Sub-Saharan Africa in cross-cultural teams.  He has researched, lectured, and co-published on inclusive finance topics. Eike works in Zurich, Switzerland. Read his full interview here

Nimisha Ghorpade is oikos Pune alumna. She was one of the organizers of oikos FutureLab 2016 and was part of the oikos newsletter team for a couple of years. She has experience in projects revolving around biodiversity conservation, water management, and sustainability. Currently, Nimisha resides and works in Mumbai, she is still actively involved in oikos and is one of our Alumni Ambassadors in India. Read her full interview here

To learn more about Cross-Cultural Management visit https://hbr.org/topic/cross-cultural-management