Deeper cultural assumptions about the nature of human relationships

At the core of every culture are assumptions about the proper way for indi­viduals to relate to each other to make the group safe, comfortable, and productive. When such assumptions are not widely shared, we speak of anarchy and anomie. Whereas the previous assumption areas deal with the group ’s relationship to the external environment, this set of assumptions deals more with the nature of the group itself and the kind of internal envi­ronment it creates for its members. These basic assumptions will color how the group copes with the various issues that were outlined in Chapter Six and will be further elaborated on in Chapter Twelve.

As humans, there are several fundamental issues around which con­sensus must form for any organized action to occur. These issues derive from the fact that as humans we have a brain and a set of highly developed cognitive functions, we have emotions that must be managed, and we have intentions or will that must find outlets. Dealing with these issues can best be conceptualized as a set of questions that every member of a new group or organization must resolve in order to be able to focus on the task to be accomplished. Until these questions are answered to some satisfactory degree, the person will be anxious and preoccupied with his or her own personal issues instead of focusing on the group’s task.

What Problems Must be Resolved?

  • Identity and Role: Who am I supposed to be in this group and what will be my role? (Cognitive clarity)
  • Power and Influence: Will my needs for influence and control be met? (Management of aggression)
  • Needs and Goals: Will the group’ s goals allow me to meet my own needs? (Management of intentions and will)
  • Acceptance and Intimacy: Will I be accepted, respected, and loved in this group? How close will our relationships be? (Management of love)

Chapter Twelve will show how leadership behavior and group interac­tion enable members to gradually answer these questions and allow the group to move on to task accomplishment. Every group, organization, and society will develop different solutions to each of these problem areas, but some kind of solution must be found for people to get past self-oriented defensive behavior and be able to function in the group and establish a reli­able and meaningful social order that provides cognitive clarity, manage­ment of aggression and love, and outlets for intentions and will.

In macrocultures, these questions get dealt with in the process of edu­cation and socialization into society and occupations. In Chapter Six , I discussed some variations at this level within groups. If we compare macro­cultures, it becomes evident that the basic identity of all members is deeply shaped by the rules of the social order around authority and intimacy. Underlying this is an even more fundamental issue of each member’s basic connection to the society.

1. Individualism and Collectivism

Anthropologists observing a wide variety of macrocultures have noted that one major dimension on which nations and ethnic groups differ is the degree to which they regard the ultimate unit of society to be the indi­vidual or the group. All societies have to develop a system for encourag­ing individuality and group loyalty, but they differ in their assumptions about what is ultimately the basic unit (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961; Havrylyshyn,1980). Hofstede ’s (2001) comparative study reinforces this point in identifying individualism-collectivism as one of the dimensions along which countries differ in his surveys. For example, countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom come out as more individualistic, whereas Pakistan, Indonesia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Japan come out as more collectivist.

One way to test this dimension is to ask if group and individual interests differ, which will be sacrificed and which will be protected? In the United States, our Constitution and Bill of Rights ultimately protect the individ­ual, whereas in more collectivist cultures, the individual is expected to sac­rifice for the greater good of the group. At the extreme, this assumption has led to the glorification of suicide as in the case of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II and terrorist suicide bombers in the current war against terrorism.

In practice, every society and organization must honor both the group and the individual in the sense that neither makes sense without the other. Where cultures differ dramatically, however, is in the degree to which the espoused behavioral norms and values do or do not reflect the deeper assumption. On the surface, both the United States and Australia appear to be individualistic cultures, yet in Australia (and New Zealand), you hear many references to the “tall poppy syndrome” (that is, it is the tall poppy that gets cut off). For example, an American teenager whose parents had relocated in Australia reported that after a brilliant ride on his surfboard, he had to say to his buddies, “Gee, that was a lucky one.” A person does not take personal credit in an individualistic culture that has strong espoused collectivist values. In contrast, though the United States espouses team­work, it is evident in sports that it is the superstar who is admired and that building teams is seen as pragmatically necessary, not intrinsically desirable.

In terms of the four fundamental questions, individualistic societ­ies define roles in terms of personal accomplishment, license aggression through personal competition, put a high premium on ambition, and define intimacy and love in very personal terms. The more collectivist society defines identity and role more in terms of group membership, licenses aggression primarily toward other groups, puts less value on personal ambi­tion, and funnels love primarily within the group.

2. Power Distance

All groups and cultures have the issue of how to manage aggression, so it is not surprising that broad surveys of cultures such as Hofstede’s identified the dimension of “power distance”—countries vary in the degree to which people in a hierarchical situation perceive a greater or lesser ability to con­trol each other’s behavior. People in high power distance countries, such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Venezuela, perceive more inequality between superiors and subordinates than do people in low power distance countries, such as Denmark, Israel, and New Zealand. If we look at the same index by occupation, we find higher power distance among unskilled and semiskilled workers than among professional and managerial workers, as expected.

At the organizational level, assumptions about relationships, of course, reflect the assumptions of the wider culture, but they become elaborated and differentiated. The founder/leader may believe that the only way to run an organization is to assign individual tasks, hold individuals account­able for performance, and minimize group and cooperative work because that would only lead to lowest – common – denominator group solutions or, worse, diffusion of responsibility. Another leader might emphasize coopera­tion and communication among subordinates as the best means of solving problems and implementing solutions because that would lead to the level of teamwork that task accomplishment requires. These two leaders would develop quite different working styles, which would be reflected ultimately in the organization’s processes, reward systems, and control systems.

DEC was very individualistic but reduced the power distance between superiors and subordinates as much as possible, building on the assumption that good ideas can come from anyone at any time. Senior managers were always available and willing to talk to anyone about any issue, constrained only by the practicalities of time and space. A senior manager in R&D left DEC for a bigger and better job, only to return three months later with the following comment: “In the new company I had an idea for a new product and was told that I would have to talk first to my boss, then to the director of R&D, and then to the senior vice president. In Digital, if I have an idea, I go straight to Ken Olsen, and we kick it around. This is the kind of place in which I want to work.”

In contrast, Ciba – Geigy was more collectivist and valued hierarchy, formality, and protocol. Individuals did not approach people informally. Meetings and conferences had to be well defined, have a clear purpose accepted by all, and be planned with rank and appropriate deference in mind. During my consulting visits, I saw only people who had specifically requested some of my time to discuss some specific problems that they were concerned about. It would not have been appropriate for me to drop in on people or to strike up conversations beyond the minimal cordialities in the executive dining room.

3. Basic Characteristics of Role Relationships

Human relationships can also be usefully analyzed with the aid of Parsons’s (1951) original “pattern variables.” It is these fundamental characteristics of all role relationships that led to the Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck model (1961) and the currently popular diagnostic model of Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars (2000).

In any relationship between people, we can ask these questions:

  1. Degree of emotionality: Is the relationship very aloof and “profes­sional,” as in a doctor-patient relationship, or very emotionally charged, as in friendship?
  2. Degree of specificity vs. diffuseness: Is the relationship very specific, dealing only with the exact reason for the relationship, as in a sales- customer relationship, or diffuse, as in most friendships?
  3. Degree of universalism vs. particularism: Do the participants in the relationship view each other in a very general “ universalistic” way based on stereotypes, as in most professional relationships, or do they perceive each other in a very “particularistic” way as whole persons as in a spousal relationship or friendship?
  4. Degree of status ascription vs. achievement: Are social rewards, such as status and rank, assigned on the basis of what the person is by birth or family membership, or on the basis of what the person has actually accomplished through his or her own effort?

Using these variables, we would say that relationships in DEC were emotionally charged, diffuse, particularistic, and highly achievement oriented; in Ciba-Geigy, they were emotionally aloof, specific, somewhat (though not totally) universalistic, and somewhat mixed on ascription versus achieve­ment. Achievement clearly counted at Ciba-Geigy, but ascriptive criteria such as the right family background, the right level of education, and the right social status also were considered very important. One of the high- potential division managers who was a widower was strongly encouraged to remarry as a prerequisite to being promoted to the internal board of the company. People at Ciba-Geigy were assumed to be ambitious, but the good of the company was taken into account more than it was in DEC, where the assumption seemed to be that if everyone did “the right thing”— that is, made her or his best individual effort—that would turn out to be best for the company as a whole.

These dimensions identify the specific areas where macrocultures differ a great deal, leading to potential communication problems in multicultural groups. Problems of defining business ethics stem from these dimensions in that managers from individualistic countries who believe in universalistic rules and status through achievement find it difficult to work in collectivist countries where emotionally charged diffuse relationships lead to nepotism and requirements for payoffs to get things done. In collectivist countries, the building of relationships necessarily precedes getting down to work, which creates problems for the individualistic competitive manager who believes that getting the job done supercedes all other values. What the task- oriented person does not understand is that from the relationship- oriented person’s point of view, the task cannot be accomplished unless a good relationship has been built’ Getting mutual understanding around this issue will become critical as more work will be done in multicultural teams whose members will arrive with very different assumptions about all of these relationship dimensions.

4. Rules of Interaction-The Joint Effect of Time, Space, and Relationship Assumptions

In Chapter Eight, we saw how intimacy is defined by timing, distance, and position. If we combine those assumptions with assumptions about the appropriate way for people to relate to each other, we have, in effect, the assumption set that specifies what in most cultures make up the basic rules of interaction (Goffman, 1967; Van Maanen, 1979b). What we think of as tact, poise, good manners, and etiquette can be deconstructed into a set of rules that preserve the social order—what Goffman and others have called “face work.” In other words, in every human group, the members sooner or later learn that to survive as a group, they must develop rules and norms that make the environment safe for all. Members must learn to preserve each other’s face and self-esteem, lest the social environment become dangerous. If I humiliate you, I license you to humiliate me.

The content of these basic rules of interaction differs from culture to cul­ture, but the existence of some set of such rules can be safely predicted for any group that has had some stability and joint history. The function of the social order is to provide meaning to its members, to create psychological safety through the rules of interaction that protect face and self-esteem, and to define personal boundaries and the interactional rules for love and intimacy.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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