Cultural values

Cultural values affect every aspect of our lives, including how we interpret others’ actions and what we view as priorities. With the rapid pace of global mobility, accelerated by ongoing regional conflicts, most work environments are no longer culturally homogeneous. People who work together frequently have been socialized in very different cultural contexts.

“Culture” refers to the worldview into which we are socialized as young children and the embedded values of which we (often unconsciously) apply in our interactions with others.

The most fundamental difference is in the assumed cultural context.[1] High context cultures (e.g., Asian, Latin American) focus primarily on interpersonal relationships or process, while low context cultures: focus primarily on task completion or efficiency.

Another way of looking at cultural differences is where a culture falls on four key value dimensions:[2]

  • Relationship with nature: The extent to which individuals believe that they control what happens or need to coexist with the natural environment.
  • Temporal orientation: The extent to which individuals are oriented towards the past (tradition), the present, or the future (“bigger, better”).
  • Activity orientation: The extent to which individuals value “being” (simple presence) versus “doing” (accomplishing an objective).
  • Relationship with others: The extent to which individuals emphasize personal achievement or group cohesion.

An analysis of corporate culture in a range of countries has explained differences along three particularly useful dimensions:[3]

  • Power distance, or the degree of role formality expected.
  • Risk aversion, or the relative value placed on innovation and taking risks.
  • Individualism, or the relative value placed on individual preferences versus group concerns.

As we become more aware of cultural value dimensions, our attitudes usually change in the following sequence:[4]

  • Non-differentiation: “I am the world”; unaware of other cultural groups; little awareness of one’s own group identity.
  • Simple differentiation: Aware of some differences between one’s own group and other groups in terms of cultural values; little understanding of the reasons for the differences; view one’s own group as superior to other groups.
  • Complex differentiation: Aware of both similarities and differences between one’s own group and other groups; understand that one’s own group’s values are multidimensional; initial awareness of universal human issues.
  • Reciprocity: Understand “otherness” as relative; aware of a range of cultural perspectives; aware of a meta-cultural reality.

[1] See E.T. Hall, Beyond Culture, 1976.

[2] See F. Kluckhohn & F. Strodtbeck, Variations in Value Orientations, 1961.

[3] See G. Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences, 1984.

[4] Adapted from K. Metz, “Desociocentering: A neo-Piagetian model of the process of decentering in the intergroup context,” Human Development, 1980, 23:1-16.