The 7 most common cultural differences in the workplace

Published on 04-07-2019

Because of globalisation and the internet, more and more international teams are forming within scale-ups, enterprises and even start-ups. This is of course fantastic, but what about cultural differences in the workplace and the associated misunderstandings that you may encounter as a result?

With the help of Trompenaars’ model of national culture differences you can learn to recognise the seven most common cultural differences that could appear in an international workplace. We also briefly describe what you should do if you work in one of these cultural dimensions.

The model of Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner contains seven dimensions. Each dimension contains two opposites:

  1. universalism vs. particularism
  2. individualism vs. communitarianism
  3. neutral vs. emotional
  4. specific vs. diffuse
  5. achievement vs. ascription
  6. sequential vs. synchronic
  7. internal vs. external control

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1. Universalism vs. particularism: rules vs. relationships

This dimension is all about the following question: “which things are more important, rules or relationships”.

Universalism

In universalist cultures, laws, rules, values, and obligations have greater priority than relationships. People try to be fair with each other, but rules are rules.

If you work in a universalistic culture, you need to make sure that the values of the employees are aligned with those of the company and that there are clear agreements and processes in place. Always make objective decisions and explain, where necessary, on what they are based.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: the Netherlands, USA, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Great Britain and Germany.

Particularism

In particularistic cultures, it is believed that rules may differ per situation and relationship. So someone’s reaction can vary greatly per situation and per person.

It is therefore extremely important to build good relationships with the people around you if you want to get stuff done, when working in or with such cultures. Also be flexible with agreements to avoid getting irritated when things go differently than planned.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Russia, South America and China.

2. Individualism vs. communitarianism: individual vs. the group

Individualism

In an individualistic culture, people regard themselves primarily as individuals. They believe that everyone makes their own decisions and is responsible for themselves and their own performance.

If you are a manager, ensure that your employees have the confidence and freedom to make their own decisions, and give them the opportunity to be creative and learn from their mistakes.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: US, Israel, Canada, Great Britain, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland.

Communitarianism

Communitarianism refers to people who regard themselves primarily as part of a group. The group provides safety and support. In return, the group always comes before the individual and an individual always has to be loyal to the group.

So, as a manager, you have to praise good group performance and strictly avoid favouring one individual. In addition, allow employees to involve others in their projects.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Latin America, Mexico, India, Africa and Japan.

3. Neutral vs. emotional

This dimension is about whether people have strict control over their emotions or whether they should be able to express them.

Neutral

People within the neutral dimension act primarily from reason and logic and are guided to a lesser extent by their feelings. They do not easily show what they think or feel.

In short, handle your emotions effectively within a neutral culture and try to prevent emotional outbursts. Pay close attention to people’s reactions, because it will be harder to see what they feel. Direct communication, as in not too much elaboration, is also of great importance within this culture type.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden, Finland and Germany.

Emotional

People within the emotional dimension want to be able to express their emotions spontaneously, even at work. In these cultures, expressing your emotion is generally accepted.

It is therefore important that you accept that employees with this cultural background tend to express their emotions. If you work in a similar culture you need to make sure that you resolve conflicts without taking it personally. Also make use of positive emotions yourself. For example use passion and enthusiasm to make your point.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Italy, France, Spain, Latin America and Poland.

4. Specific vs. diffuse: work vs. private

With specific and diffuse is meant the difference between people who keep their work life and their private life strictly separated, and people who tend to let both aspects of their lives overlap.

Specific

People within the specific dimension believe that relationships don’t have much influence on work goals and that people can work together without having a good relationship.

It also means that you cannot force your employees to take their work home with them, or to join in activities that happen outside of work. Direct communication is also essential here and comes first, before maintaining relationships.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: USA, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands.

Diffuse

People who fall within the diffuse dimension believe that good relationships are crucial for doing business and achieving their goals. Their relationships don’t change whether they interact with each other at work or socially. These people also spend their time with colleagues and customers outside of working hours.

Therefore it is important that you put effort into creating and maintaining relationships. The more you know about someone, the easier it is for you to gain a customer and work effectively with your colleagues. So don’t be surprised if people are talking about work at parties or in private conversations. Not joining in social events is a no-go if you are ambitious in your career.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Argentina, Spain, Russia, India, China.

5. Achievement vs. ascription

People from different cultures look differently at merit and how to treat people based on this.

Achievement

People who derive status from their achievements fall within the achievement dimension. It is believed that you are what you do and people base their value on this. These cultures place great value on achievements, regardless of who you are.

So don’t expect someone to treat you differently because you happen to be a manager, executive, or the boss’s daughter. People will follow you sooner if you inspire them and are a good role model for them. On the other hand, this means that you can also treat others based on their achievements instead of their title.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: US, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia.

Ascription

The ascription dimension includes people who believe that you should be appreciated for who you are. Power and position also count here.

In such a culture you have to respect a person’s title and the status that is derived from it, even if you do not agree with this person. Also, if you have a high rank yourself, prevent your authority from impeding the quality of your work. Especially in this cultural dimension you have an exemplary role and people will expect you to act accordingly.

Examples of cultures with this dimension: France, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia.

6. Sequential vs. Synchronic

This dimension focuses on how different cultures handle time.

Sequential

Sequential means that people in these cultures believe that events and tasks happen in a chronological order. Punctuality, agendas, schedules and clear deadlines are considered highly important.

Therefore, try to be on time and meet your deadlines. Do not work on more than one project simultaneously and set clear, realistic deadlines.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: the Netherlands, Germany, USA, Great Britain.

Synchronic

Synchronic includes cultures where people work on multiple task at the same time. Tasks and events are interwoven in terms of timing and punctuality, and deadlines are only important to achieving goals. People in these cultures are more flexible when it comes to schedules and obligations.

If you work in such a culture, it is important that you adapt to this. Flexibility is the magic word for both you and your colleagues. However, if there are tasks that do have an inescapable deadline, you have to communicate this clearly in order to prevent problems.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Japan, Argentina, Mexico.

7. Internal vs. external control

Within this dimension, we look at the amount of control a person can exercise on the outside world and therefore also their work.

Internal control

With internal control (internal locus of control), people find that they themselves have control over their environment and the achievement of goals.

People who work from their internal locus of control need personal development and “lifelong learning”. It is also important to give them constructive criticism where necessary, so that they can learn from it. Also, if you set clear goals with them, you can leave them largely free in their work.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Israel, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain.

External control

With external control (external locus of control) people find that their environment has control over them and directly influences them. They also have to work with their environment to achieve their goals. At work they focus their actions on others and try to avoid conflicts as much as possible. Often they also need reassurance that they are doing their job well.

This means that a manager has a lot of influence on his or her team. If you are in such a position, give these people regular instructions and feedback. Make sure to include compliments if they do their job well. Try to gradually build up the confidence of your employees and if there is a conflict, discuss it calmly and one-to-one if possible. Finally, encourage your colleagues to take responsibility for their work.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: China and Russia.

Tip: read in our article This is how you deal with cultural differences in the workplace how you can put the knowledge from this article more into practice.

Header photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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