National Culture: The key to authentic engagement

What does national identity have to do with employee engagement?

Well, everything really when we consider that ‘who we are’ is central to what motivates us.  Like organisational culture, we know that national culture is made of outer layers that are mostly easy to see; practices, rituals, symbols etc… But the deepest layer of culture is that of values, which exist deep within each of us, and which determines the way we perceive, and therefore, embrace the outer layers.  These are values that underpin our perception of self, and of who we are, such as gender and national identity.  And this is the key.  By understanding the differences between national culture and organisational culture, we can strengthen the potential of engagement approaches; especially in multi-national settings, or in multi-cultural societies.  By understanding the core tenets of national culture, an organisation has the ability to build in added relevance, and dare I say it, sustainability, to their engagement strategies and activities.

Let’s explore this a little more to get an idea of how easy it is to build in this extra layer of relevance and impact to an engagement strategy.  Firstly, we need a common global framework and language for understanding national culture; for this I draw on the scientific foundation of Prof Geert Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture, of which I will focus on the first five: 

Power Distance: The extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations accept that power is distributed unequally.  Higher Power Distance = hierarchy, power and distance between the top of the institution and the bottom.  Lower Power Distance = flatter hierarchies (and hierarchy for convenience only) and greater accessibility to superiors.

Individual or Collective: In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only.  In Collectivist societies people belong to ‘in-groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.

Masculine or Feminine: Emphasis on status, achievement and success in life, versus emphasis on the quality of life and serving others.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.

Long Term vs Short Term:  The extent to which people show a future-oriented perspective rather than a normative or short-term point of view.

With the above dimensions in mind, we can already start to see that what may work in one country as far as an engagement approach is concerned may not work as well, if at all, in a different country.  This is a huge consideration for multi-nationals. For those with a single country focus, our experience is showing very clearly how the effective use of these dimensions can help to optimise the way engagement occurs; both at a leadership and organisational level.  Let’s look at what this means.

Culture Focused Engagement

We have taken the cultural dimensions of Hofstede, and applied them to employee engagement and found that there are a number of fairly simple combinations that can inform the approach of your engagement strategy for greater impact.  We have broken them into two sets of factors, People and Organisational Factors.

People Factors:
These are the factors that influence the way leaders engage with their people, ranging from the relevance of reward and recognition strategies, and how leaders motivate and inspire.  Below is a short overview of the impact of each People Factor Dimension.

People Factor 1: Involve Me or Tell Me
Involve Me countries are those with a lower Power Distance score, such as Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK.  As the name suggests, the involvement of employees in decision making through a more consultative style is central to how leaders can engage with their teams.  In Tell Me cultures, there is higher Power Distance; with ‘power’ being the central concept.  Most countries around the world outside of Germany, Anglo and Scandinavian countries are higher in Power Distance. Therefore, in these countries, the higher the score on the Power Distance scale, the less likely it is that a) the manager will want to involve their employee in a conversation to seek their opinion on a topic, as this would mean giving up the power that comes with their role, and b) the employee will not believe they have the power to engage in such a conversation in the first place and will expect to be told.  Outside of day-to-day leadership styles, an easy example of how we see this play out in multi-national companies is through the application of the annual objectives setting process.  Employees from Involve Me countries, (lower Power Distance origins), will appreciate this process and be mostly engaged in the negotiation of objectives.  The same practice rolled out in Tell Me countries stand next to no chance of being applied successfully, if at all (with the same going for higher Power Distance employees living and working in a lower Power Distance society).  The manager will see this as giving up a central tenant of their role (to have the answers and provide direction) and the employee will not believe that they have the power in the first place to have such a conversation.

People Factor 2: Recognise Me or Acknowledge Us
This factor is based on Hofstede’s second dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism, and has a strong influence on recognition, loyalty and, like the first factor, how people like to be led.  Anglosphere countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands are examples of Recognise Me countries; all highly individualist societies. The Middle East, West Asia, Asia and South America are all examples of Acknowledge Us regions, and more collectivist.  When coaching expat leaders moving from individualist countries to collectivist, this is one of the more subtle, but high impacting aspects of leadership that needs to be grasped.  The easy example is how we recognise high performers. In a Recognise Me country, it is as the name suggests; we recognise those who perform.  Whether it is in the company newsletter, as employee of the month or a special voucher for a vacation.  In Recognise Me cultures, loyalty is to oneself, and their immediate circle of friends or family; and engagement is probably most likely to occur if the organisation can demonstrate an intersection between the needs of both the organisation and the employee. In an Acknowledge Us country, where belonging and loyalty to the group trumps self-actualisation, the approach to recognise great performance is structured not to place an individual above the group.  In fact the belief is more likely to be that ‘we’ succeeded with little or no thought of how one individual was better than the other.  Naturally you can imagine how leadership styles need to be adjusted to maximise performance.  Applying a Recognise Me style of leadership in an Acknowledge Us country will only create disharmony, and create greater distance between the manager and the employee group than would normally exist. 

People Factor 3: Task Trust or Relationship Trust
Trust and engagement are often considered interchangeable terms when thinking about employee engagement.  But how we build trust will happen in different ways, depending on where you are from.  Through a business lens, and drawing once again on the Hofstede dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism, we know that trust is built in different ways; either through the demonstration of individual competence and focusing immediately on business (Task Trust) or by sharing time in the group and letting people understand who they are really working with (Relationship Trust).  From an engagement perspective we can see that this element has the potential to work against us in very subtle ways if we aren’t awake to the difference in approaches.  An Asian member of a global team (Relationship Trust), who is used to slowly spending time building the business relationship, will likely find it confronting if they are sent to Task Trust country as an expat or to form part of a virtual team made up mostly of Individualist team members.  Confronting in that a quick team-building session will serve as the means by which the ice is broken and the first building blocks of trust are established in an Task Trust society.  It’s interesting to note that in my experience, very little energy is given to the notion of team building in Relationship Trust countries; whereas in Task Trust countries, where the focus is on what ‘I can do’ and ‘who I am’, it makes sense that team building and Tuckman’s stages of team development have a genuine role to play in building team engagement.

People Factor 4: Win the Game or Play the Game
In tougher cultures, or as Hofstede describes, Masculine cultures, the aim is to be the best, to win. Japan, China, Australia, the US and Germany are all examples of countries who fall into this category.  On the other hand, more tender cultures, where the emphasis is on the quality of life, the aim is to participate, collaborate and achieve in a win-win manner.  The Scandinavian region, The Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Thailand are all examples of countries that fall into this category.  This factor has a strong impact on the best approaches for rewarding, and in some respects, the language and symbols used to motivate.  In tougher cultures, where win/lose is preferable to win/win, the dialogue required is a more direct style that clearly points out benefits.  And the role of rewards, to recognise status, are central to motivation.  In more tender cultures, where the journey is as important as the outcome, then the focus is more on how to ensure ‘we’ experience the journey and the outcome. This factor plays a role in how you communicate messages to your team to motivate them; tough = sell and debate, whilst tender = support and dialogue. 

Organisational Approach Factors:
The design of an engagement strategy is one thing; but knowing how to optimise its approach through the effective understanding and application of national culture factors is something else.  Even a basic understanding of the national culture dimensions can assist with more targeted communication and change management techniques.  The Organisational Approach Factors are underpinned by two of Prof Hofstede’s dimensions: Uncertainty Avoidance and Long or Short Term Orientation (how we perceive time).

By taking these dimensions into consideration, we are able to create a core engagement approach that will target a majority of employees; remembering that in any country there will always be cultural outliers, such as expats, immigrants, or the children of immigrant parents. 

Below is a summary of the various organisational approaches to engagement based on the combinations of Uncertainty Avoidance and Long or Short-Term Outlook. 

(Click on the table for a bigger version)

For many years we’ve been considering the impact of organisational culture on employee engagement and the interplay that exists between the two when creating engagement strategies.  By taking one extra step, and considering one of the core values that exist in all of us, that of our national identity, it is possible engagement to take on a whole new meaning and relevance.  

Ponte Valle Insight: National Culture: The key to authentic engagement

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