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The Seven Dimensions of Culture

3886d837396c237413d1da6e8d73fc051304432243What distinguishes one culture from another?   For the last few years, I have worked routinely with people from other cultures and backgrounds.   Usually this has gone well, and the cultural differences my colleagues and I notice about ourselves are interesting and enriching. However, sometimes things have gone wrong; and it’s not always easy to work out quite why.   I have found it fascinating as I have begun to understand the differences between cultures.  Most of my growing understanding has come through reading the work of a couple of management consultants.    The Seven Dimensions of Culture were identified by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, and the model was published in their 1997 book, “Riding the Waves of Culture.”

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner developed the model after spending 10 years researching the preferences and values of people in dozens of cultures around the world. As part of this, they sent questionnaires to more than 46,000 managers in 40 countries.

They found that people from different cultures aren’t just randomly different from one another; they differ in very specific, even predictable, ways. This is because each culture has its own way of thinking, its own values and beliefs, and different preferences placed on a variety of different factors.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner concluded that what distinguishes people from one culture compared with another is where these preferences fall in one of the following seven dimensions:

  1. Universalism versus particularism.
  2. Individualism versus communitarianism.
  3. Specific versus diffuse.
  4. Neutral versus emotional.
  5. Achievement versus ascription.
  6. Sequential time versus synchronous time.
  7. Internal direction versus outer direction.

I’ve tried to summarise each dimension in this blog post…

The model highlights that one culture is not necessarily better or worse than another; people from different cultural backgrounds simply make different choices.

However, the model doesn’t tell you how to measure people’s preferences on each dimension. So, I tend to use it as a general guide when dealing with people from different cultures.

Note 1:
For each dimension, I’ve included some of the national cultures that Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner identified as having a preference at each extreme of that particular dimension. This can be used as a general guide, but it’s important to remember to treat people as individuals, and to avoid stereotyping.

Note 2:
This model doesn’t take into account people’s personal experiences or differences between sub-cultures within the country, so I try to bear this in mind when I’m applying the model. This is especially relevant in today’s global environment, where people can be influenced by many different cultures.

1. Universalism Versus Particularism
(Rules Versus Relationships)

Universalism People place a high importance on laws, rules, values, and obligations. They try to deal fairly with people based on these rules, but rules come before relationships.
  • Help people understand how their work ties into their values and beliefs.
  • Provide clear instructions, processes, and procedures.
  • Keep promises and be consistent.
  • Give people time to make decisions.
  • Use an objective process to make decisions yourself, and explain your decisions if others are involved.
Particularism People believe that each circumstance, and each relationship, dictates the rules that they live by. Their response to a situation may change, based on what’s happening in the moment, and who’s involved.
  • Give people autonomy to make their own decisions.
  • Respect others’ needs when you make decisions.
  • Be flexible in how you make decisions.
  • Take time to build relationships and get to know people so that you can better understand their needs.
  • Highlight important rules and policies that need to be followed.

Typical universalist cultures include the U.S., Canada, the U.K, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.

Typical particularistic cultures include Russia, Latin-America, and China.

2. Individualism Versus Communitarianism
(The Individual Versus The Group)

Individualism People believe in personal freedom and achievement. They believe that you make your own decisions, and that you must take care of yourself.
  • Praise and reward individual performance.
  • Give people autonomy to make their own decisions and to use their initiative.
  • Link people’s needs with those of the group or organization.
  • Allow people to be creative and to learn from their mistakes.
Communitarianism People believe that the group is more important than the individual. The group provides help and safety, in exchange for loyalty. The group always comes before the individual.
  • Praise and reward group performance.
  • Don’t praise individuals publically.
  • Allow people to involve others in decision making.
  • Avoid showing favoritism.

Typical individualist cultures include the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.

Typical communitarian cultures include countries in Latin-America, Africa, and Japan.

3. Specific Versus Diffuse
(How Far People Get Involved)

Specific People keep work and personal lives separate. As a result, they believe that relationships don’t have much of an impact on work objectives, and, although good relationships are important, they believe that people can work together without having a good relationship.
  • Be direct and to the point.
  • Focus on people’s objectives before you focus on strengthening relationships.
  • Provide clear instructions, processes, and procedures.
  • Allow people to keep their work and home lives separate.
Diffuse People see an overlap between their work and personal life. They believe that good relationships are vital to meeting business objectives, and that their relationships with others will be the same, whether they are at work or meeting socially. People spend time outside work hours with colleagues and clients.
  • Focus on building a good relationship before you focus on business objectives.
  • Find out as much as you can about the people that you work with and the organizations that you do business with.
  • Be prepared to discuss business on social occasions, and to have personal discussions at work.
  • Try to avoid turning down invitations to social functions.

Typical specific cultures include the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands.

Typical diffuse cultures include Argentina, Spain, Russia, India, and China.

4. Neutral Versus Emotional
(How People Express Emotions)

Neutral People make a great effort to control their emotions. Reason influences their actions far more than their feelings. People don’t reveal what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling.
  • Manage your emotions effectively.
  • Watch that your body language doesn’t convey negative emotions.
  • “Stick to the point” in meetings and interactions.
  • Watch people’s reactions carefully, as they may be reluctant to show their true emotions.
Emotional People want to find ways to express their emotions, even spontaneously, at work. In these cultures, it’s welcome and accepted to show emotion.
  • Open up to people to build trust and rapport.
  • Use emotion to communicate your objectives.
  • Learn to manage conflict effectively, before it becomes personal.
  • Use positive body language.
  • Have a positive attitude.

Typical neutral cultures include the U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany.

Typical emotional cultures include Poland, Italy, France, Spain, and countries in Latin-America.

5. Achievement Versus Ascription
(How People View Status)

Achievement People believe that you are what you do, and they base your worth accordingly. These cultures value performance, no matter who you are.
  • Reward and recognize good performance appropriately.
  • Use titles only when relevant.
  • Be a good role
Ascription People believe that you should be valued for who you are. Power, title, and position matter in these cultures, and these roles define behavior.
  • Use titles, especially when these clarify people’s status in an organization.
  • Show respect to people in authority, especially when challenging decisions.
  • Don’t “show up” people in authority.
  • Don’t let your authority prevent you from performing well in your role.

Typical achievement cultures include the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia.

Typical ascription cultures include France, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.

6. Sequential Time Versus Synchronous Time
(How People Manage Time)

Sequential Time People like events to happen in order. They place a high value on punctuality, planning (and sticking to your plans), and staying on schedule. In this culture, “time is money,” and people don’t appreciate it when their schedule is thrown off.
  • Focus on one activity or project at a time.
  • Be punctual.
  • Keep to deadlines.
  • Set clear deadlines.
Synchronous Time People see the past, present, and future as interwoven periods. They often work on several projects at once, and view plans and commitments as flexible.
  • Be flexible in how you approach work.
  • Allow people to be flexible on tasks and projects, where possible.
  • Highlight the importance of punctuality and deadlines if these are key to meeting objectives.

Typical sequential-time cultures include Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.

Typical synchronous-time cultures include Japan, Argentina, and Mexico.

7. Internal Direction Versus Outer Direction
(How People Relate to Their Environment)

Internal Direction
(This also known as having an internal locus of control.)
People believe that they can control nature or their environment to achieve goals. This includes how they work with teams and within organizations.
  • Allow people to develop their skills and take control of their learning.
  • Set clear objectives that people agree with.
  • Be open about conflict and disagreement, and allow people to engage in constructive conflict.
Outer Direction
(This also known as having an external locus of control.)
People believe that nature, or their environment, controls them; they must work with their environment to achieve goals. At work or in relationships, they focus their actions on others, and they avoid conflict where possible. People often need reassurance that they’re doing a good job.
  • Provide people with the right resources to do their jobs effectively.
  • Give people direction andregular
    feedback, so that they know how their actions are affecting their environment.
  • Reassure people that they’re doing a good job.
  • Manage conflict quickly and quietly.
  • Do whatever you can to boost people’s confidence.
  • Balance negative and positive feedback.
  • Encourage people to take responsibility for their work.

Typical internal-direction cultures include Israel, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.

Typical outer-direction cultures include China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

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