Loyalty, Power and Ambiguity

Many of us have had the experience of working with (or for) people from other cultures, and will have found it baffling and stressful. They don’t react in ways that you expect, and you clearly do not act in ways they expect. And when we look at the wider world, miscommunication and misunderstanding between nations is rife. In this edition of Theopraxis Thinking, we look at some of the reasons why.

You will recall from the most recent edition of this newsletter that we first absorb memes from our parents and our teachers, and then later from peer groups and the media. When we start our careers, we also accept memes from the people we work with, and these are the mechanisms by which corporate culture is propagated and embedded. However, the memes that sit deepest in us are the ones we learned first, and it should come as no surprise that our upbringing and our schooling affect the way we work.

Caveat Lector

There is a belief, common in large homogeneous states like America and China, that people the world over think and behave in the same ways. It may be true for everyone within a thousand miles of Geneva, Illinois, but the same distance from Geneva, Switzerland contains a dozen riotously different cultures.

A lot of very interesting research has been done on how ‘national cultures’ differ, and I refer to the most accessible sources at the end of this article. However, while the research is an accurate predictor of how a member of a society will, on average, behave, individuals are not averages! Not every member of a society is running the same memes, or running them all at equal strength, and consequent differences in personality are at least as important as cultural upbringing.

So with that warning, I want to draw out from the research three particular areas of difference:

- Loyalty: whether your primary loyalty is to yourself or to family and peers;

- Power: how much power and privilege is granted, and why;

- Ambiguity: useful flexibility or undesirable risk?

We will then look at what this means for the transferability of the management techniques that we have been taught. On the way, we will look at the factors which influence leadership and team selection in France, America, Britain, China and Germany.

Me, or Us?

There is a conflict between what each of us wants as an individual and the interests of the group(s) we belong to. As individuals, we reach a ‘balance of selfishness’ that reflects the right mix of loyalty and self-determination. The majority of readers of this newsletter are from Individualist cultures, where the balance of selfishness leads to loosely-knit social frameworks in which you take care of yourself and your immediate family.

The rest of the world, however, is pretty much composed of cultures where the group (the family or the employer) is expected to look after your interests in return for duty and loyalty. People from these societies do not share our view that organisations are machines in which people are merely cogs – for them, the group is the machine.

The nature of employment in Individualist societies is strictly transactional – work in return for money, as long as it suits both parties – whereas in group-oriented societies it is a more complex mix of duty and loyalty that blurs the boundaries between work and family.

Anglophones, and particularly those from America, tend to form communities of self-interest and prefer task- or project–focused organisations. The leader will be selected on the basis of individual ability to perform, and will generally be someone relatively young who takes initiative and responsibility, and to whom decision-making can be entirely devolved.

In China, however, organisations look a lot like extended families and the split between ownership and management is less pronounced than you see in the West. Relationships are formed and policed through trust and mutual loyalty, and decision-making is often by one dominant ‘family’ member. Wisdom and experience are highly valued, and the leader will often be far older than would be normal in America or Europe.

This is entirely meme-driven. Individualist societies tend to have small ‘nuclear’ families or one-parent families, as opposed to extended families common in Southern Europe and the Far East. This is reflected in (reinforced by?) the media: a brief study of American movies will show that the heroes are often loners struggling to overcome society, whereas a perennial theme in Asian cinema is the hero’s isolation from, and then reacceptance by, the group.

Power or Empowerment?

Societies are all alike in that some people have power and privilege and some do not. They differ, however, in the extent of the inequality and how it is regarded.

In the Middle East and Far East, Latin America, and Africa, hierarchies are seen to result from ‘natural’ inequalities. Power, in these societies, entitles privilege and an expectation of obedience. This view is also fairly common in France and southern Italy.

At the other extreme, Northern Europeans and the Anglophone world tend to believe that inequalities in society should be minimised and that hierarchies are established for convenience, rather than as being part of the natural order of things.

There are also differences as to whether power is achieved or ascribed. People in ‘achievement’ cultures (which tend to be those who challenge differences in power) are taught to respect recent success, while those from ‘ascription’ cultures tend to believe that power and respect belongs to individuals because of what they are rather than what they have done. Ascription cultures tend to value integrity and reputation. Of course, they still value achievement – there is intense competition to get into the best corporations in Japan or the best schools in France - but once you are in, success is pretty much guaranteed as your ability has been discovered and certified.

For example, the strongly elitist and selective education system in France means that a disproportionate number of the upper cadres will have been educated at the Grandes Écoles. French selection processes test for intellectual aptitude and leaders are ascribed power based on position and qualifications. French organisations are strongly hierarchical, and decisions are pushed up as far as practical (as opposed to American organisations, where they are pushed down as much as possible).

Why? Societies that tolerate hierarchies tend to be those in which parents demand obedience and respect rather than experimentation and self-reliance. Teaching methods in these countries tend to involve lectures rather than interactive tutorials, and the content and authority of the teacher are rarely questioned. In contrast, students in Anglophone cultures attend schools where they are encouraged to question and challenge teachers and ideas.

Flexibility or Risk?

Another interesting difference between cultures is the way in which members of a society feel about ambiguity. Do they try to control the future, or just let it happen? And if rules cannot be kept, is it OK to change them?

My readership is divided about 50:50 between Americans and Brits, and I have to tell you that this is the biggest area of difference between our cultures. Brits have been described as having an “emotional horror” of rules. Hofstede describes the Brits thus: “Stepping into the unknown is natural and enjoyable for them and they are willing to change direction if circumstances require it…. conflict and dissent are constructive acts, and it is OK to fail. While true emotions are private things and are rarely shown, a savagely anarchic sense of humour acts as a release valve”.

These traits are similar (but not as pronounced) in Northern Europe, the USA and India. The rest of the world, however, likes a lot more structure. In Portugal, Greece, Japan and the French- and Spanish-speaking world rules are most definitely there to be followed. Failures are to be avoided at all costs, and conflict and dissent are seen as unproductive. Anxiety levels tend to be higher, but it is perfectly normal to show emotion in the family or the workplace.

Again, we can assume that these memes are transferred via the family and the education system. An interesting comparison can be made between Germany and the UK, who are otherwise very similar in terms of core values. German educational assignments tend to be highly structured, with precise objectives, timetables and preferably one right answer. British educational assignments are open-ended, with vague objectives, no timetables and often no right answers. The German education system has a strong orientation to technology, whereas the Brits are the only developed nation that accords low social status to engineers.

At the risk of stereotyping, the majority of German managers are technically skilled. The best person at a particular task is often given the leadership role, regardless of their other characteristics, and are autonomous provided they stay within a framework of procedures. In contrast, in Britain we like ‘a good all-rounder’ that can adapt to any situation. While progress is also made through initiative and responsibility, decision-making in Britain is avoided wherever possible (just in case the situation changes).

Organisation Structures and the Political Environment

Around three decades ago, a professor at INSEAD set his students a problem about poor relationships within the board of a print firm. When he analysed the results he was surprised to find that the answers given by his students depended on their nationality – it was as if they had implicit models of ‘good organisation’ in their minds. He reported:

“The results were striking. ... The solution preferred by the French was for the opponents to take the conflict to their common boss, who would issue orders for settling such dilemmas in the future. ... The solution preferred by the Germans was the establishment of procedures. The British solution was [to send] department heads to a management course to develop their negotiation skills.”

Further work showed that students from countries with a reasonably high tolerance of ambiguity but a dislike of hierarchy (typically the Anglophone countries and Scandinavia) saw organisations as a ‘village market’ where people within the organisation traded with each other. If the students had a lower tolerance of ambiguity (e.g. the Germans and Dutch) they saw an organisation as a ‘well-oiled machine’ running according to a set of predefined rules. In South America and southern Europe (as well as France and Belgium) the ideal organisation was a pyramid, and in the rest of the world the organisation was liked to a large family with the patriarch firmly in charge.

There are exceptions to the classifications given above, of course (Japan and Pakistan would prefer pyramids and Israel likes well-oiled machines) but as a generalisation it is useful, because the way that the organisations work clearly depends on the preferred structure:

  • ‘Village Market’ structures are fluid and task-based, and tend to be egalitarian, with specialists led by generalists whose role is the efficient management of resources. Conflict is healthy and change is achieved through negotiation.

  • ‘Well-oiled machines’ look like a set of stovepipes whose interactions operate according to predetermined rules, through which the boss exerts control. Change is implemented by rule modification and conflict is seen as a ‘pathology of orderly procedure’

  • ‘Pyramid’ organisations are, as you might imagine, very hierarchical and leadership involves issuing orders. Leaders are carefully selected, and respected once the selection is made. Change is, of course, implemented top-down and achieved through influencing the boss.

  • ‘Large family’ organisations may not appear hierarchical, but insiders are quite clear on where power and status lies. Again, change implemented top-down but in this case leadership involves defusing intra-family conflicts. The ‘family’ relationships often extend well beyond the workplace (unlike the other structures) and nepotism is constructive.

The key point here is that most of us who have been educated in Western business schools will be carrying a set of memes about good organisation structures, such as the ones created by Mintzberg. These memes are only useful when we work within the Anglophone world. People from different cultures will be carrying sets of management memes that work well in their culture but will not fly overseas – for example, French authoritarianism will be met by open revolt in Scandinavia, Malaysian paternalism would fail in Austria and matrix management is almost never found in France.

Methods of management

As well as ideal organisation structures, we also carry memes about how we should be managed and how we should manage others. These memes depend on the degree of difference in power we are prepared to accept between us and our bosses, and also the degree to which we see ourselves as personally responsible for our failures and triumphs.

The next diagram shows a rough plot of these two factors. As before, the groupings are not ideal (Israel, Costa Rica, Japan are well outside their regional groupings) but we can roughly divide nations into various groups.

At the top left of the diagram, the management memes taught by our business schools work reasonably well. People are accountable for their actions, management-by-objectives is a useful tool, and the role that people take depends largely on their ability.

Now consider what would happen if we took our management methods to Indonesia, China, South America or Southern Europe (and, to an extent, to France and Belgium as well). People from these cultures are much less likely to feel that they are personally responsible for their performance, instead seeing themselves as contributors to the overall team performance.

Although management-by-objectives and payment-by-performance are the norm in most Western societies, they are the first casualties: as an individual contract between worker and boss, they imply a degree of negotiation and open communication which pyramids and patriarchal structures do not encourage.

Punishing an individual for poor performance, or even singling them out for excessive praise or a bonus for excellence could lead to their exclusion by the group. It’s far better in these cultures to punish or reward the group and let its internal mechanism correct or reward individuals. In fact, in group-oriented cultures, openness and honesty about individual performance is usually not appreciated and can backfire badly.

Team selection and promotion are also different in group-oriented cultures. A person’s remuneration and position in the hierarchy will depend on a whole range of factors to do with their age, background and family as well as their individual performance and you have to be very careful selecting teams and promoting unless you understand these factors. Similar factors apply when hiring or firing – your co-worker’s brother-in-law may be an idiot, but make sure you think about the wider consequences of not hiring him.


The role of the manager in a foreign culture is particularly difficult – the way you manage and the political environment in which you do it will feel completely alien. Depending on where you sit on the scales of loyalty, power and ambiguity, you may feel over-managed or subverted, isolated or under-appreciated, and the organisation will seem over-bureaucratic or anarchic.

If you want to manage someone from another culture, or negotiate a deal, or even understand what they are really trying to say to you, then you absolutely will not succeed unless you are aware of the memes you are running and how these differ from the memes they are running. Since you have no chance (at least in the short term) of changing the way that people think, the best that you can do is to create a ‘cultural translator’ for incoming and outgoing communications.

We have merely skimmed the surface of culture diversity here. The importance of time, planning horizons, gender roles, the tension between rules and relationships, and the interaction between a person and his work all differ from culture to culture, and all can make or break a manager-employee relationship. But that’s a story for another day.

A Note on Sources

An honest management consultant tells you whose watch he is stealing, so I acknowledge that much of the research in this edition of Theopraxis Thinking comes from the work of Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars and their teams. I recommend the following:

  • “Cultures and Organisations – Software of the Mind”. Geert Hofstede. ISBN: 0-00637-740-8

  • “Culture’s Consequences” 2nd Ed Sage 2000; ISBN 0-80397-323-3

  • “Riding the Waves of Culture – Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business – Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. 2nd Ed.1997. ISBN 1-85788-176-1

  • Building Cross-cultural Competence”, Fons Trompenaars. Wiley 2000. ISBN 0-471-49527-1

  • The INSEAD experiment is reported in Hofstede, Management Science; Jan 1994; 40, 1; pg 4-13