Intercultural Management: Cultural Sensitivity

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Measurement drives behaviour. That is one of the most fundamental rules of performance management. Another way of saying this is “what gets measured, gets done.” Setting goals and targets, and linking performance indicators to incentives is meant to motivate people. However, people’s behaviours are culturally dependent. Looking someone in the eye is polite in my country (The Netherlands), yet very impolite in others. The Dutch are known for being very direct (others would call it blunt), which doesn’t always work in the UK or USA. My wife Alexandra is German, and she needed to learn to explain “why” if she wants something done (or not done) in The Netherlands, where in Germany authority counts more.

Yet, management culture seems to equate to USA culture in many cases. Methodologies such as balanced scorecard, and best practices for implementing them, may usually work in the USA, but may completely fail somewhere else. Global companies have cultures too, but national cultures seem to be stronger than company cultures.

We have to make performance management culturally dependent in order to drive the right behaviours of people. Fortunately, in the field of intercultural management there is a lot of research on this topic; for instance, by Trompenaars and Hofstede. These scholars, and others, have defined many dimensions on how to describe cultures. Here is one example of how to apply performance management in different cultures, making use of one interesting cultural dimension, called Rules Orientation. The spectrum has two extremes: universalism and particularism.

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