The National Level of Culture and the Global Workplace

12/7/2015

There are six levels of culture at play in any working environment – national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and, finally, individual.

In today’s globalized business world, with its focus on emerging markets and shifting economic relationships, determining cultural differences on the national/societal level is necessary for any organization’s internationalization strategy. But it is dangerous to overly simplify cultural differences across countries. Problems converge frequently as a result of depictions of specific business cultures through simplistic, nationality-based comparisons.

That is why there is value in signifying national/societal culture as but one level of a more complex system. In doing so, individuals acknowledge that within each country there are core values that are safe to assume to be present, but that there are five other levels of culture to take into account. For example, a foreign businessperson seeking to expand their enterprise in China would do well to assume that the core values of saving face (“mianzi”) and establishing relationships (“guanxi”) are applicable in all business situations in the country. Knowing this, the foreign businessperson would avoid raising their voice to or questioning their Chinese partners in a meeting to avoid causing them to lose face. Similarly, this businessperson would know to ask their Chinese contacts to facilitate initial introductions with potential partners in order to kick-start the relationship. Assuming that these fundamental values are present can help our foreign businessperson prepare their business ventures and adapt their strategies.

However, the existence of possible exceptions should not be ignored or disregarded. For example, a particular Chinese organization might have a culture that values more direct communication. Similarly, functional groups within organizations – such as Human Resources employees, engineers and IT personnel – have distinct cultures as well. This is why it is essential to account for all six levels of culture when interacting and collaborating with others. 

Although it is safer to accept the existence of some core values in any given culture, the social identities, contexts and circumstances are dynamic and varied across all levels, creating the chance to formulate nuanced strategies.

With this in mind, we at TMC seek to responsibly represent the differences and similarities among nationalities by referencing the national/societal as but one of six levels of culture, and by identifying their respective relevance to managers and leaders in today’s globalizing business world.