Geert Hofstede

Cultural Diversity Thinker

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Geert Hofstede
Image used with permission from Masstricht University

Geert Hofstede (1928-) is a Dutch academic who also worked in industry. He has become known for pioneering research on national and organisational cultures. Hofstede originally identified four dimensions for defining work-related values associated with national culture: power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity. A fifth dimension, long term orientation and a sixth dimension, indulgence versus restraint were added later. He devised the Values Survey Module for use in researching cultural differences, and this has been used by many other researchers in their work.

The management of cultural diversity has become a significant issue for companies of all sizes, not just multinationals. The rise of global business, with an increasing number of joint ventures and cross-border partnerships, greater cooperation within the European Union, and the business need to embrace people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultures, have all contributed to the need to develop a cultural sensitivity. Problems can arise in international operations because of cultural ignorance or insensitivity. The transfer of Western values to the East, for example, can be inappropriate, and corporate culture and management practices may need modifying to suit local conditions. Hofstede's work has provided a framework for understanding cultural differences.

Biography

Key theories

Hofstede's theory

Hofstede defines culture as being collective but often intangible. It is, however, what distinguishes one group, organisation or nation from another. In Hofstede's view, culture is made up of two main elements: the internal values of culture - which are invisible - and external elements of culture - which are more visible -and are known as practices. The latter include rituals (such as greetings), heroes (such as people or television shows) and symbols (such as words and gestures). The cultures of different organisations can be distinguished from one other by their practices, while national cultures can be differentiated by their values.

Values are among the first things that are programmed into children. These are reinforced by the local environment, at school and at work. It is therefore difficult for an individual to change them in later life, and this is the reason why expatriate workers often experience difficulties when faced with another national culture.

The dimensions of national culture

Hofstede carried out his research using a questionnaire called the Values Survey Module. From the results, he drew up indices which reflect the national cultural characteristics or dimensions of a country. All the quotations in this section are taken from Hofstede's Cultures and organizations, 1991.

Power distance - how a society handles inequalities

Power distance is defined by Hofstede as 'the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally'.

In low power distance nations such as the United Kingdom, inequalities among people will tend to be minimised, decentralisation of activities is more likely, subordinates expect to be consulted by superiors, and privileges and status symbols are less evident. Conversely, in high power distance nations inequalities among people are considered desirable, there is greater reliance by the less powerful on those who hold power, centralisation is more normal, and subordinates are likely to be separated from their bosses by wide differentials in salary, privileges and status symbols.

Individualism/collectivism - behaviour towards the group

Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in groups, which throughout people's lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

In some societies people need to belong to a group and have a loyalty to the group. Children learn to say `we'. This is true of countries such as Japan, India and China. In other societies such as in the UK, individualism is more important, with a lower emphasis on loyalty and protection. Children learn to say `I'. In strong collectivist countries there tends to be greater expectations of the employer's obligations towards the employee and his or her family.

Masculinity/femininity - behaviour according to gender

'Masculinity pertains to societies in which social gender roles are clearly distinct; femininity pertains to societies in which social gender roles overlap.'

In a masculine society (Hofstede gives the UK as an example) there is a division of labour where the more assertive tasks are given to men. There is a stress on academic success, competition and achievement in careers. In a feminine society such as France (according to Hofstede) there is a stress on relationships, compromise, life skills and social performance.

The last 30 years has seen enormous changes - a `feminisation' process - to the behaviour of Western democracies. It has been said that the emergence of developing countries is as much about feminisation as it is about harder business and economic realities.

Uncertainty avoidance - the need for structure

Uncertainty is 'the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations.'

In societies where there is a need for structure it is because there is a fear of uncertainty. Countries characterised by weak uncertainty (such as the UK) do not perceive something different to be dangerous. Conversely, in strong uncertainty avoidance societies people will seek to reduce uncertainty and limit risk by imposing rules and systems to bring about order and coherence. This may be seen in organisation structures: for example, where there is a need for rules and dependence there will be a pyramidal organisational structure.

Long term orientation versus short term normative orientation

This fifth dimension was added in 1991 from research by Michael Bond, supported by Hofstede. Based on Confucianism, the fifth dimension was added to distinguish the difference in thinking between the East and West. A Chinese value survey was distributed across 23 countries and from the results, long term vs. short term normative orientation became the fifth cultural dimension. The dimension exists when people are focused on the future. People with this cultural perspective are willing to delay short-term material or social success or even short-term emotional gratification in order to prepare for the future. They tend to value persistence, perseverance and being able to adapt. On the other hand cultures demonstrating a short-term orientation will be more concerned with the past and present and will focus their efforts and beliefs on matters related to the short-term.

Indulgence versus restraint (IND)

In 2010, a sixth dimension was added based on Michael Minkov's analysis of the World Values Survey data for 93 countries. Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun whereas restraint societies are more likely to believe that such gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict norms. Indulgent cultures tend to focus more on individual happiness, wellbeing, individual freedom and personal control. This contrasts with restrained cultures where positive emotions are less freely expressed and happiness, freedom and leisure are not given the same importance.

This sixth dimension has not as yet been widely adopted within the intercultural training and management field perhaps due to the ambiguities of focusing on happiness research. Happiness is viewed very differently across cultures and it is represented and discussed quite differently.

In practice

With the rise in global business, many people are working with, or managing, individuals and groups from cultures other than their own. Hofstede is keen to emphasise that the 'dimensions' are not a prescription or formula but merely a concept or framework. They equip us with an analytical tool to help us understand intercultural differences. For example, the practical experience of many multinationals in building international teams can be explained in terms of Hofstede's framework.

Knowing about such differences can help to avoid conflict in international management. Hofstede's framework shows that it is not safe to assume that apparently similar countries in the same region, for example Holland and Belgium, or Austria and Hungary, have similar cultures.

The cultural dimensions also provide us with a convenient shorthand term to illustrate a characteristic of a particular organisation or country. For example if someone refers to a country as having a `high feminine index' it suggests that people in that country characteristically value having a good working relationship with their supervisor and with their co-workers, living somewhere they and their family want to live and having job security.

In perspective

Despite the popularity of Hofstede's model there have been some criticisms from those who have argued that his conceptualisation of culture and its impact on behaviours might be incorrect as it indicates too much determinism which could be due to flaws in his methodology. Hofstede’s theory has however been extensively validated and his work on the effects of culture on work-related values remains the standard work.

The framework has been used by other researchers to determine the suitability of certain management techniques for various countries or to make comparisons between countries to understand cultural differences in various areas of management. Mo Yuet-Ha used Hofstede's framework to assess the cultural differences and similarities between East Asian countries. The findings were then used to underpin the understanding of competency-based behaviours in these countries.

Hofstede's original research focused on middle class workers. Other writers have extended his work by looking at different groups of workers and different countries. Michael Bond took Hofstede's work into Hong Kong and Taiwan by using a Chinese Values Module devised by Chinese social scientists to test whether Hofstede's work was conditioned by his Western outlook and methods. The cultural dimensions were confirmed, except that of uncertainty avoidance, which may be a theory applicable only to the West. It is worth noting that this dimension has attracted critics who have suggested that it may have been merely a product of the time at which the work was conducted and may not be as relevant today. However, Bond's work led to the discovery of a fifth dimension, long-term/short-term orientation. This dimension measures the extent to which a country takes a long or short term view of life. The long term orientation of Confucian dynamism and thrift correlated strongly with economic growth. The sixth dimension added in 2010 has been criticised for its focus on happiness research as doubts have been expressed concerning the validity of using data originating from questions asking respondents to describe how happy they are. The dimension however could have an impact upon the willingness of employees to voice opinions and give feedback. It would also appear to be pertinent to generational differences with the impact of technology on younger generations indicating that the need for instant gratification is more prevalent among younger people.

Fons Trompenaars, another noted writer on cultural diversity, has carried out work which shows how national culture influences corporate culture. For Trompenaars, the major types of culture - the Family (a power-oriented culture), the Eiffel Tower (a role-oriented culture), the Guided Missile (a project-oriented culture) and the Incubator (a fulfilment-oriented culture) - are comparable with Hofstede's model. Hofstede himself has also extended his work into this area by collaborating with Henry Mintzberg, linking Mintzberg's five organisational structures with his own cultural dimensions. This link is intended to show that some organisational structures fit better in some national cultures that in others.

Further reading

Key works by Hofstede

Books

Culture's consequences: international differences in work related values. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980

Cultures and organizations: software of the mind. London: McGraw Hill, 1991

Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviours, institutions and organizations across nations. 2nd ed, London: Sage, 2001

(Hofstede has pointed out that Culture's consequences was a scholarly book whereas Culture and organizations was written for practising managers and students. The latter book revisited the basic material of the former and included some new information.)

Journal articles

With Minkov, M. Long- versus short-term orientation: new perspectives. Asia Pacific Business Review. 16 (4) 2010, pp.493-504

Websites

Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede website
http://www.geerthofstede.nl/

The Hofstede Centre
http://geert-hofstede.com/

 

Key works by others

Books

Carte, P. and Fox, C. Bridging the culture gap: a practical guide to international business communication. London: Kogan Page, 2004

Hopkins, B. Cultural differences and improving performance: how values and beliefs influence organizational performance. Fareham: Gower, 2009

Journal articles

Hodgetts, R. A conversation with Geert Hofstede. Organizational Dynamics, 21 (4) 1993, pp.53-61

Brown, A. D. & Humphreys, M. International cultural differences in public sector management: lessons from a survey of British and Egyptian technical managers. International Journal of Public Sector Management. 8 (3), 1995, pp5-23

Morden T. National culture and the culture of the organisation. Cross Cultural Management: an International Journal. 2 (2), 1995, pp.3-12

Yuet-Ha, M. Orienting values with Eastern ways. People Management. 2 (15), 25 July 1996, pp.28-30

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