Four Cultural Differences Between Western and Non-Western Cultures

From Leading Across Cultures by James E Plueddemann (pp. 77-146)


1. Leadership and Context

Beneath the clearly perceived, highly explicit surface culture, there lies a whole other world, which when understood will ultimately radically change our view of human nature.

Probably the most fundamental difference between people and cultures is the degree of sensitivity to what is happening around them--their context. Some cultures encourage people to tune in closely to innuendoes of meaning occurring all around them, subtle though they may be. Other cultures predispose people to be divorced from their physical context and more deeply connected to the world of ideas.

A high-context culture is made up of people who pay special attention to the concrete world around them. Everything in the physical setting communicates something significant: the atmosphere of the room, the sounds, the smells, the expressions on faces, the body language. The subtleties of the real-life setting intentionally communicates important information.

In low-context cultures, people pay special attention to explicit communication and to ideas. The context of these ideas is not as important as what is specifically said. Precise words are more important than the tone of voice.

High-context cultures place a premium on harmonious relationships. The group is more valued than the individual, and cooperation is preferred over competition. Quality time is treasured more than accomplishing a quantitative task. Change is resisted.

On the other hand, people in low-context culture tend to think in concepts, principles, abstractions and theories. Their thinking transcends the present situation and is not embedded in the immediate context. Communication is not subtle, but direct. It is mostly verbal or written. Accomplishing precise goals is more important than building relationships, and time is measured as a quantity, not a quality. Because communication is unambiguous, the meaning can be understood by outsiders as well as insiders. Individuality and competition are valued, and change is usually seen as a good thing.

Tension and confusion between cultures arise in the hidden messages enfolded in the context. Low context communication can seem cold and uncaring to people in high-context cultures, and high-context communication can seem baffling or even dishonest to idea-oriented people.

While it is important to avoid stereotypes, [research] indicates that cultures tend to favor one or the other contextual value. Strengths and weaknesses characterize both low- and high-context perspectives. For instance, special awareness of nonverbal communication may be a strength of a high-context culture. Leaders from a low-context culture may need to be nudged toward this awareness. By the same token, leaders from high-context cultures might benefit from planning strategies that are a strength of low-context cultures. Both sides need to be patient with each other.

2. Leadership and Power

In every society certain people have more power, influence and status than others, and each society develops cultural values that deal with inequality. Some cultures assume a large status gap between those who have power and those who don't. In these cultures, both leaders and followers assume that the power gap is natural and good. These societies are called high-power-distance cultures. Other cultures value lesser power distance and seek to minimize status symbols and inequalities between people. These are called low-power-distance cultures. All cultures fit along a power-distance continuum.

Geert Hofstede, a researcher from the Netherlands, defines power distance 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 high-power-distance cultures both leaders and followers assume that the leader has more authority, respect and status symbols. The leader has the right to make unilateral decisions that will be obeyed without question. In these societies, employees do not question managers, students do not challenge teachers, and children obey parents or other elders without question. The opposite is true in low-power-distance cultures. Children expect parents to give them a rationale for their decisions. Employees are invited to give suggestions to management, and teachers are glad when students raise difficult questions.

Formal authority tends to be centralized in high-power-distance societies. Bosses are not questioned, and decisions are communicated from the top. For a leader in a high-power-distance culture to ask the advice of a subordinate could signal that the boss doesn't know how to lead. Leaders in low-power-distance cultures prefer a consultative, participative or democratic decision-making style.

In high-power-distance cultures, people assume that their leaders will have special privileges such as their own parking space, a corner office, finer clothes, a private dining room, a much higher salary and maybe a chauffeured car. None of this will be expected of leader in low-power-distance cultures and, in fact, would irritate employees.

Both Hofstede and the GLOBE study report findings of strong correlations between high power distance and frequency of corruption. Since most high-power-distance countries are not wealthy, it could be that poverty encourages corruption. Or it could be that countries with high power distance have fewer checks and balances, which then leads to corruption and poverty.

Examples of both high- and low-power-distance cultures are found in the Bible. From a biblical perspective high power distance can be either good or bad.

Several passages in the New Testament support high-power-distance values. Jesus taught that it was right to pay taxes to the hated hierarchical Roman government (Mk 12:17) and to pay the temple tax (Mt 17:27). Peter reminds younger believers to submit to their elders (1 Pet 5:5). Paul informs his friends in Rome to be subject to governing authorities (Rom 13:1). The writer of Hebrews challenges the congregation to "have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account." (Heb 13:17)

At the same time, a biblical case can be made for low power distance. Jesus chides the high-power-distance Pharisees who relish the place of honor at banquets, seek the most important seats in the synagogue, love to be greeted with respect in the marketplace and insist that others honor them by their title, Rabbi. The greatest among you will be your servant (Mt 23:5-7).

The Bible teaches respect for those in authority but also that those in authority must not demand to be held in high esteem. Leaders in high-power-distance cultures need to be aware of the danger of pride in position and of lording it over followers. Followers in low-power-distance cultures need to show proper respect for those in authority over them. Both leaders and followers are to clothe themselves with humility toward one another, because "God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed" (1 Pet. 5:5).

Learning to cooperate in spite of puzzlement over the subtle cultural value of power distance takes special grace, but when it works, the body of Christ moves ahead with fresh vigor.

3. Leadership and Individualism

Does the community exist to meet the needs of individuals, or should individuals seek to foster the good of the group?

Some cultures place a high value on the community and others on the individual. Parents in some societies raise their children to be independent by the age of twenty-one, while others raise their children to be lifelong and loyal family members. Sociologists label the difference as individualism and collectivism. While cultures are a mixture of both, they tend to place a stronger emphasis on one of the other.

The individualist culture sees the individual as "the end" and improvements to the communal arrangements as the means to achieve it. The communitarian culture sees the group as its end and improvements to individual capacities as a means to that end. They describe the dilemma as a cycle. Individualism promotes personal freedom and responsibility, but leads to self-centeredness. The cure for self-centeredness is the establishment of communitarian values and group consensus, which in turn leads to conformism and slow decision making which then takes one back to individualism.

Geert Hofstede, a researcher from the Netherlands, reported that "the vast majority of people in our world live in societies in which the interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual. We will call these societies collectivist." In these societies the desires of the extended family are more important than those of the individual. The close-knit family usually includes parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Therefore one owes lifelong loyalty to one's in-group, and breaking this loyalty is one of the worst things a person can do. Between the person and the in-group a mutual dependence relationship develops that is both practical and psychological.

Hofstede continues, "A minority of people in our world live in societies in which the interests of the individual prevail over the interests of the group, societies that we will call individualist." Children in individualist societies are usually born into a nuclear family made up of only parents and siblings. Children are taught to be independent, to do things for themselves and to have a personal identity. Grown children are expected to move away and live on their own, often in distant locations.

The findings of Hofstede place the United States, Australia , Great Britain and Canada high on the individualism along with most European countries. Japan, India, Brazil and many Middle Eastern countries are near the middle of the scale. China, Africa and most Asian and Latin American countries are the least individualistic.

Shame and Guilt

Because harmony is important in collectivistic cultures, shame, or the show of public displeasure, is a powerful motivator for proper behavior. On the other hand, "Individualist societies have been described as guilt cultures: persons who infringe upon the rules of society will often feel guilty, ridden by an individually developed conscience that functions as a private inner pilot." The threat of losing face through public humiliation is a powerful motivator in a shame-oriented, collectivistic society. Gaining face, or public honor, is also important in a collectivistic society. Personal self-respect is the driving force in a guilt-oriented individualistic society.

Individualism/Collectivism and management

Hofstede describes implications of this concept for management practice. "In a collectivistic culture an employer never hires just an individual, but rather a person who belongs to an in-group." In these societies it is desirable to hire a family member, someone who is already a member of the company or someone from a highly respected family. Poor performance of an employee is no reason for dismissal; one does not dismiss one's child.

Nepotism, or the hiring of family members, is often illegal or considered inappropriate in individualistic societies. "Conflict of interest" is thought to be a danger when family members work together.

There is an African proverb, "If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together." Such proverbs make perfect sense in collectivistic cultures, but sound quaint in individualistic cultures where being distinctive is of utmost value. The truth is that individuals need one another in order to become fully human, but an overly domineering community will stifle personal development.

4. Leadership and Ambiguity

Life is unpredictable in every culture. For some societies, ambiguity is a serious problem and leaders do everything they can to minimize it. They avoid uncertainty by attempting to predict and control the future. They set precise goals, make long-range plans, schedule appointments, design contingency plans, purchase insurance, make to-do lists and develop thick policy manuals. But not every society fears uncertainty. Some leaders learn to live with ambiguity and with a laid-back attitude toward life. Communities with little desire to avoid uncertainty are puzzled by the stressful ways of those who do. On the other hand, leaders with a low tolerance for ambiguity can't understand the "whatever will be, will be" attitude toward life. Cultural differences in avoiding uncertainty cause innumerable frustrations and puzzlements in leadership.

Uncertainty is part of life. People living in societies with low tolerance for ambiguity (high uncertainty avoidance) desire to minimize insecurity by having policies, time tables and detailed planning. Those living in societies with a high tolerance for ambiguity (low uncertainty avoidance) tend to live life more in the present.

Societies that avoid uncertainty tend to do the following:
- Formalize their interactions with others
- Document agreements in legal contracts
- Keep orderly and meticulous records
- Rely on formalized policies and procedures
- Establish and follow rules
- Verify communications in writing
- Take more moderate calculated risks
- Show stronger resistance to change
- Show less tolerance for breaking rules

Societies that tolerate uncertainty tend to do these things:
- Be more informal in their interactions with others
- Relay on the word of those they trust rather than contractual arrangements
- Be less concerned with orderliness and maintenance of records
- Rely on informal interactions and informal norms rather than formalized policies, procedures and rules
- Be less calculating when taking risks.
- Show less resistance to change
- Show less desire to establish rules to dictate behavior
- Show more tolerance for breaking rules.

There is a correlation between power distance and tolerance for ambiguity. In low-power-distance societies it is more likely that the law is king, Whereas in high-power-distance societies, the king is law. The rule of law tends toward less uncertainty than the rule of a king.

The Biblical Paradox

People living in societies that value certainty might be quick to point out the Bible verses supporting their position. After all, the Bible says that the wise will plan ahead and that we should count the cost and obey laws. On the other hand, people living in societies that tolerate ambiguity may point out the strengths of being "laid back" or "going with the flow" in a more relaxed, less stressful atmosphere. They too can quote verses about living by faith and not worrying about the future.

Building Global Understanding

Countries that avoid uncertainty tend to be more technologically developed, have greater economic prosperity and support competitions. It is interesting though to note that the fastest growing churches in the world are usually in countries with high tolerance for uncertainty--those that don't set precise goals, plan long-range strategies or evaluate using precise numerical criteria. Church growth in Africa has been phenomenal.

Both high- and low-uncertainty-avoidance mission enterprises have important strengths and significant weaknesses. We need each other. We need to listen to each other and blend an unchanging gospel into a new missiology that is in tune with an unpredictable, ever-changing cultural context.