Corporate Culture

How Corporate Cultures Differ Around the World

Culture can be a powerful lever for maintaining, renewing, and shaping an organization’s viability. While global teams can provide cost savings and help firms access talent from around the world, cultural differences and divergent expectations around workplace norms can be sources of friction. That’s why it’s so important to understand how cultures tend to differ around the world.

Building upon the integrated culture framework we presented in “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture”, we launched an online assessment to allow HBR readers to explore their own organizations’ cultural profiles. We received over 12,800 responses from across the globe between December 2017 and May 2019.

The assessment gave us a window into HBR readers’ organizational cultures: the shared, pervasive, enduring, and implicit behaviors and norms that permeate an organization (rather than individual employees’ own culture styles). For each respondent’s organization, we examined the relative rankings of eight distinct culture styles that map onto two dimensions: how people respond to change (flexibility versus stability) and how people interact (independence versus interdependence).

A few patterns emerged across the full sample of responses: Caring and results were the most salient culture attributes across respondents’ organizations, reflecting an orientation toward collaboration and achievement in the workplace. Meanwhile, authority and enjoyment ranked lowest overall, indicating that decisiveness and spontaneity were lower priorities.

Cultures can exist on many different levels. Within organizations, variations in culture can be found by functional area or even by work group. More broadly, patterns in behavioral norms and values can also exist at the national or regional level. Prior research has shown how culture varies across countries in systematic ways.

HBR’s readers provided a great global lens through which to examine organizational cultures across regions. We received survey responses from around the world, with 43% of responses coming from readers outside North America. In this global sample, some patterns were remarkably consistent across regions: On average, caring ranked highly across all regions, while authority ranked among the least salient culture attributes. However, when we examined whether certain culture styles were more heavily represented in specific regions, some interesting differences came to light.

How people respond to change. First, we examined the culture attributes that explain how people respond to change (more specifically, organizations’ tendencies toward stability versus flexibility). We found that organizations in Africa exhibited substantial flexibility. Many organizations in this region were characterized by learning and purpose, indicating an openness toward change through innovation, agility, and an appreciation for diversity. In contrast, many firms in Eastern Europe and the Middle East were characterized by a strong degree of stability. An emphasis on safety was prevalent in these regions, revealing the prioritization of preparedness and business continuity. Particularly in the Middle East, we found many firms in which authority ranked highly.

How people interact. Second, we analyzed how people interact with one another. In other words, we examined whether people are inclined toward independence or toward interdependence. Firms in Western Europe and in North and South America leaned toward a high level of independence; however, this tendency manifested itself in different ways. Western European and North American firms exhibited an especially strong emphasis on results, goal-orientation, and achievement. Relative to other regions, enjoyment ranked highly in South America, reflecting a propensity toward fun, excitement, and a light-hearted work environment. On the other hand, firms in Asia, Australia and New Zealand were more likely to be characterized by interdependence and coordination. In these regions, we found workplaces that embodied caring, and a sense of safety and planning. Particularly in Asia, we found many firms that emphasized order through a cooperative, respectful, and rule-abiding culture.

The external environment can shape the cultures of the organizations in which we work, but we all have our own individual work styles. It can be informative to take stock of how our own work styles mirror or differ from regional culture patterns, especially when considering how our behaviors and actions will be perceived by others. For example, taking the initiative to update standard operating procedures to implement a new software package might be applauded in a region where learning and agility are valued, but might be met with frustration in a region that emphasizes order and consistency.

Furthermore, with the increasing prevalence of telecommuting, freelancing, and contract work, it is becoming ever more common to work with others across regional boundaries. Recognizing that fellow team members may be coming from regions where norms and behavioral patterns differ from our own is critical when communicating and collaborating with a diverse work team.


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