Cultural Differences and Improving Performance: How Values and Beliefs Influence Organizational Performance

Peter van Gelder (Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, The Netherlands)

Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal

ISSN: 1352-7606

Article publication date: 25 October 2011

1672

Keywords

Citation

van Gelder, P. (2011), "Cultural Differences and Improving Performance: How Values and Beliefs Influence Organizational Performance", Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, Vol. 18 No. 4, pp. 520-523. https://doi.org/10.1108/13527601111179555

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


There is a growing realization among interculturalists that there may not be an existing theoretical framework, or even an emerging paradigm, to adequately define the complexity of culture and the role of cultural diversity in organisational relationships and interactions. The absence of such a system to define cultural differences and to understand the effect of the beliefs and values of a culturally diverse group comes at a time when globalisation of the workforce, internationalisation of higher education, and immigration are common features. Bryan Hopkins's book Cultural Differences and Improving Performance addresses these issues: not by offering a “bigger and better” theory on how cultures differ, but by proposing a framework for analysing performance problems in a multicultural context, generating ideas for resolving them, and selecting and implementing the appropriate solution.

In the previous three decades, the focus on culture had been dominated by a contrastive values‐based conceptualization of cultural differences. Although there were a number of pioneering theorists in this period, it was the publication of Geert Hofstede's Culture's Consequence in 1980 that provided quantitative “proof” of the influence of national cultures and a “system” for predicting differences in values and behaviours. Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory has had a long shelf life and has been expounded, expanded, and modified over the years by a phalanx of notable researchers and practitioners.

This past decade, however, has seen a more cautious approach to the overreliance on these types of quantitative bipolar typologies. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious being that to rely on national culture to define an individual's values and behaviours is to ignore the influence of multiple cultural levels that exist simultaneously (such as gender and profession). Moreover, the notion that cultural values are static and can be classified into neat compartments is to ignore the dynamic nature of culture and the implications of the convergence effect of globalisation and immigration.

However, the abandonment of a system to define cultural differences can represent a massive step – even a step too far for some; an initiative that could leave training without a quantitative foundation and without a framework to address the “realities” of the business world. These dimensions of values and communication styles, moreover, can be valuable building blocks in cultural training and for understanding the reasons for miscommunication and conflicts in cross‐cultural encounters. The problem is that depending on a system of bipolar measurements to reduce complex cultural differences to dimensions of national cultures leads to what Osland and Bird (2000) call “sophisticated stereotyping”.

In this context, perhaps the focus should not be on finding another paradigm that can produce the ultimate theoretical framework for understanding cultural variations and their influence on organizational conflicts. If we accept that dimensional theories can provide an essential – albeit limited – first step in making an initial hypothesis, there is an obvious need to have a mechanism by which we can delve deeper into the nuances and complexities of cultural behaviours. It is at this crucial juncture, where answers should not be immediate but deliberate, that Bryan Hopkins has produced an important book, Cultural Differences and Improving Performance: How Values and Beliefs Influence Organizational Performance.

This is a big book not only in size – coming in at just over 300 pages – but also in the ideas presented. Hopkins provides a detailed and systematic approach to analysing and solving performance problems that are associated with working in “global and culturally diverse organizations”. The book aims to integrate theories of management, performance engineering, systems thinking, and cross‐cultural psychology and explore some common but significant workplace activities, such as leadership, motivation, and team working, that can be problematic in a multicultural environment. In so doing, Hopkins examines two interaction factors that large organisations crucially need to understand: national culture and performance. This leads to the main focus of this book: how do cultural differences affect people's performance in the workplace? And how can we analyse these perceived problems and find solutions for them?

Cultural Differences and Improving Performances should be of particular interest to managers in organisations faced with the complexities of a cultural diverse workforce. In addition, human resources managers, trainers and coaches wanting to enhance their effectiveness and move beyond their training leitmotif with a systems approach will benefit from reading this book. In fact, this book should appeal to a wide audience: those who need the theories of culture and performance engineering; or those who want the practical side of understanding performance measurement, analysing problems and identifying appropriate solutions; or those who prefer to learn about both.

Hopkins, himself, has had extensive experience in training, specialising in solving performance problems and designing learning programmes, both in the UK and abroad. He, therefore, makes pains to stress the practical rather than the academic value of his book. To this end, he has divided his book into two parts: part 1, The Theory and part 2, The Practice. Moreover, in the spirit of globalisation, he acknowledges the need to move beyond a Western orientation and to include the realities of a wider world.

What stands out, though, is Hopkins' expertise as a learning designer. Complex ideas and systems need to be grasped before progressing from parts 1 to 2 of the book. At the beginning of each chapter, a key‐points box prepares the reader for what is to come, and at the end of each chapter, there is a summary of the main points. Furthermore, in the first part of the book, each chapter concludes with a mindmap showing graphically not only the contents covered but also how they are linked. Another facet of the cognitive learning process that Hopkins employs effectively is the use of poetry, aphorisms, Sufi parables, and even a dialogue out of the Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction to propel the reader to think metaphorically so as to make the connections. As part 2 deals with putting these systems into practice, the reader is confronted with an array of flow diagrams, systems methodology, and conceptual models. At first glance, this can seem quite daunting. Rest assured! Hopkins has formulated each chapter in such a way that explanations are lucid and ideas visually enhanced with diagrams, flow charts, and mindmaps.

Part 1 of Cultural Differences and Improving Performance comprises five chapters and has a dual purpose. First, it constructs the scaffolding for the second part by providing the theoretical frames for classifying cultural differences, analysing workplace performance, understanding the influence of culture on workplace activities, adopting a systems approach to how organisations function, and solving workplace problems. Second, it provides flowcharts and models as well as brief case studies that guide the reader through the process, from perception to implementation, of identifying and solving problems that involve a multicultural workforce. Chapter 4, “The systems approach”, in particular, demonstrates the effectiveness of such a multifaceted approach. As a novice in this subject area, I appreciated that the ideas presented became miraculously comprehensible. Also, as an educator, I was interested to see how a complex topic could be clearly presented with text and visuals so that it quickly lost its threat of intimidation.

In the first chapter, “How do cultures differ?”, Hopkins presents culture as one of the contributors – interconnected with human nature and personality – to individual behaviour. While acknowledging the question of validity, Western bias, and other caveats, Hopkins, nevertheless, largely depends on Western categorisation of values as indicators to help in the analysis of workplace performances. To his credit though, Hopkins presents an exhaustive compilation of theoretical frameworks representing bipolar dimensions of cultural values and attitudes, all comprehensibly displayed in various tables, meticulously labelled and explained. In this regard, he also tries to include different perspectives often by juxtaposing Western and Eastern positions and, at the same time, admitting his own cultural bias.

However, in some cases, this reliance on theories that give weight to a national values perspective of culture can come across as stereotypical or outdated. In Chapter 3, “Culture and workplace activities”, for example, when illustrating the importance attached to contractual relationships in America compared to Japan, the statistical evidence (taken from Richard Lewis's When Cultures Collide) regarding the number of lawyers in each of the countries is neither current nor, in the light of actual numbers, does it adequately relate to the point being made about culture and negotiation.

Once the first five chapters, providing the scaffolding of theory, systems, and techniques, is completed, we move into part 2, The Practice. In this section, Hopkins takes us through a seven‐step problem‐solving process that develops from the knowledge of cross‐cultural and performance management issues that were covered in the first part. Each chapter represents a single step in the process starting with step 1: define the problem. This is followed by the next six steps: collect data, analyse the problem, generate ideas, select solutions, implement solutions, and, finally, evaluate effectiveness. As in part 1, this section is augmented with tables, systems flow charts, diagrams, and case studies. In addition, Hopkins includes an ongoing fictionalised case study with the protagonist Philippa Barlow acting as a tongue‐in‐cheek copy of the hard‐boiled detective created by Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe. As with the vignettes of poetry and Sufi parables in part I, I found this both entertaining and instructive.

This is a valuable book for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the seven‐step problem‐solving methodology that Hopkins outlines resonates with those who have attempted to move from the values typology that has defined cultural differences and behaviours for the last thirty years. Before Hopkins's book, a systematic way in which to frame the situation, analyse it, and come to conclusions had yet to be so clearly and exhaustively defined (A notable exception is the cultural sense‐making framework proposed by Bird and Osland, 2000, 2005‐2006). Bryan Hopkins, with Cultural Differences and Improving Performances, offers to fill that gap. Not by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but by introducing a systems approach to facilitate a methodology whereby performance problems are assessed, defined and solutions offered.

In fact, this may be a book for everyone working in organisations that have a diverse cultural environment, be they involved in education, training or business. For those who are satisfied with employing the dimensional tools supplied by the cultural theories of Hofstede, Trompenaars and Hampden‐Turner et al., the systems approach related by Hopkins can provide more accuracy and relevance to the problem‐solution equation. For those in need of a new paradigm, it provides a tangible means to move along through the “waiting for Godot” stage. And for those who believe that the problems associated with the complex subject of culture require solutions derived from a more sophisticated and penetrative perspective, Hopkins offers a design that is eclectic rather than prescriptive, liberating rather than restrictive.

References

Bird, A. and Osland, J.S. (2005‐6), “Making sense of international collaboration”, International Studies of Management & Organization, Vol. 35 No. 4, pp. 11532.

Osland, J.S. and Bird, A. (2000), “Beyond sophisticated stereotyping: cultural sensemaking in context”, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 6579.

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