Business Cultures: Every Organization Has Its Symbols, Rituals and Heroes

By Hofstede, Geert | UNESCO Courier, April 1994 | Go to article overview
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Business Cultures: Every Organization Has Its Symbols, Rituals and Heroes

Hofstede, Geert, UNESCO Courier

MANAGEMENT means getting things done through (other) people. This is true the world over. In order to achieve this, one has to know what needs to be done and one has to know the people involved. Understanding people means understanding their background, from which their present and future behaviour can be predicted.

Their background has provided them with a certain culture, the word culture being used in the sense of "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another". The "category of people" may be a nation, a region or an ethnic group, women or men (gender culture), old or young (age group and generation culture), a social class, a profession or occupation (occupational culture), a type of business, a work organization or part of it (organizational culture), or even a family.

Culture is composed of many elements, which may be classified in four categories: symbols, heroes, rituals and values.

Symbols are words, objects and gestures which derive their meaning from convention. At the level of national cultures, symbols include the entire area of language. At the level of organizational culture, symbols include abbreviations, slang, modes of address, dress codes and status symbols, all recognized by insiders only.

Heroes are real or imaginary people, dead or alive, who serve as models for behaviour within a culture. Selection processes are often based on hero models of "the ideal employee" or "the ideal manager". Founders of organizations sometimes become mythical heroes later on, and incredible deeds are ascribed to them.

Rituals are collective activities that are technically superfluous but, within a particular culture, socially essential. In organizations they include not only celebrations but also many formal activities defended on apparently rational grounds: meetings, the writing of memos, and planning systems, plus the informal ways in which formal activities are performed: who can afford to be late for what meeting, who speaks to whom, and so on.

Values represent the deepest level of a culture. They are broad feelings, often unconscious and not open to discussion, about what is good and what is bad, clean or dirty, beautiful or ugly, rational or irrational, normal or abnormal, natural or paradoxical, decent or indecent. These feelings are present in the majority of the members of the culture, or at least in those persons who occupy pivotal positions.

Nationality (and gender as well) is an involuntary attribute; we are born within a family within a nation, and are subject to the mental programming of its culture from birth. Here we acquire most of our basic values. Occupational choice is partly voluntary (dependent on the society and family); it leads to choice of schools, and at school we are socialized to the values and the practices of our chosen occupation.

When we enter a work environment, we are usually young or not-so-young adults, with most of our values firmly entrenched, but we will become socialized to the practices of our new work environment. National cultures, therefore, differ mostly at the level of basic values, while occupational and, even more, organizational cultures differ more superficially (in their symbols, heroes and rituals).

National culture differences

Results from a number of research projects have led me to classify national cultures along five dimensions. The first four were found by comparing the values of employees and managers in fifty-three different national subsidiaries of the IBM Corporation. They have been labelled:

1) Power distance, or the degree of inequality among people which the population of a country considers as normal: from relatively equal to extremely unequal.

2) Individualism, or the degree to which people in a country have learned to act as individuals rather than as members of cohesive groups: from collectivist to individualist.

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Business Cultures: Every Organization Has Its Symbols, Rituals and Heroes


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