A Cautionary Tale – How Not to Use Hofstede and Set An Example of Tolerance
People like simple answers to complex questions. Our tendency to quickly arrive at an answer, an explanation, and/or a solution to a complex question, idea, or problem can often lead us down the wrong path. We are prone to heuristic decision-making and we can often fall prey to cognitive biases ranging from belief bias to zero risk bias. Without the proper introspection, leaders are at risk of making faulty assumptions and decisions that can prove harmful not only for their followers, but also the leaders’ own career progression. Many times HR and OD professionals are asked to intervene because an organization is put at risk legally due to a leader’s inability to recognize his or her own shortcomings and biases when interacting with her team.
Leaders generally have tremendous influence on their teams and the overall organizational climate. As such, “leadership helps set the values and culture for the organization. And in turn, leaders’ either endorse those values and culture or invalidate them.” (Penn State, 2015)
Most organizations have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, and leaders should model the right behavior that endorses the organizational values. Yet, a misunderstanding of OD concepts and tools such as the Hofstede cultural dimension model, can create an environment where suddenly leaders might jump to making incomplete decisions that puts them, their followers, and the organization at risk.
In the case of Hofstede’s cultural model, it is easy to oversimplify the information and reduce it to a stereotype and translate it into prejudicial behavior. A stereotype is defined as a “fixed notion about persons in a certain category, with no distinctions made among individuals.” (Hofstede, 2001, p 14) In fact moving down this road, can actually lead to prejudicial behavior. Prejudice is defined as “an unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on the individual’s membership of a social group.”
After learning about the cultural dimensions model if a leader finds herself heading in the direction where she attributes generalizations and oversimplifications to an individual, it is best to stop and take note of that behavior. In fact, Hofstede himself has indicated “One of the big misunderstandings about these dimensional models is that they describe each and every individual from a particular society and a related fear that this constitutes a pejorative value statement – in other words, a stereotype. If some trainers use these models in this way, they are dead wrong..” (Hofstede)
As complex as culture is, individuals themselves are even more complex. The right to example to set and the right values to demonstrate are those that stress the importance of getting to know individuals without burdening them with any perceived ills of whatever identity group has been ascribed to them.
Another fallacy that can negatively impact leaders is a generalized understanding of a culture through the myopic view of an experience or a relationship that leader has had with the culture. Often people cite anecdotal data such as vacations in other regions, relationships with others as factual data points to support a specific view. Once again, this is an oversimplification, as this type of anecdotal experience is hindered by the subjectivity of the individual and their own ability to assess culture factually. In addition, these types of experiences, though they make for good stories, often omit socio-economic, geo-political, and historical factors which influence the current state of a culture/country.
So, what is the value of these types of models? How should Hofstede be used? The greatest value that the dimension model brings is the opportunity for students and adherents of the model to understand the dimensions through which culture can be understood. Next, it is best used as an introspective tool. One where the student/leader or adherent of the model can take inventory of her own tendencies using the dimensions. Finally, it can be used as tool when creating general, large, or broad organizational programs that encompass various culture. The model itself should never be used narrowly as a means to understand an individual. Each of us is far too complex to be reduced to just six dimensions. Ultimately, any tool is only as good as the practitioner using it. Therefore, leaders and organizations owe it to themselves and to their followers to become well versed in them before applying them. In an ever shrinking world where the global economy has replaced what was once local and one where boundaries are fluid and people and goods move fairly freely from one corner of the globe to another, Cultural Intelligence is the next frontier for leadership. Leaders of today must know how to motivate and unite a diverse group of people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and this leadership challenge cannot be answered by an oversimplified answer.
Hofstede, G. 2001. Culture’s consequences. (2 ed) Sage Publications
Hofstede, G 2009. Research on Cultures: How to use it in training? European J. Cross Culutral Competence and Management, Vol. 1, No 1, 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.geerthofstede.com/media/1230/research%20on%20cultures%20how%20to%20use%20it%20gjh%202009.pdf
Cardwell, M. (1996). Dictionary of Psychology. Chicago IL: Fitzroy Dearborn.