Mindset India - Interkulturelles Training, interkulturelles Coaching und interkulturelle Beratung für Indien

Personality traits vs. Cultural dimensions

Culture is a tricky thing. It is all pervasive but hard to describe. Its importance has dawned even people who have a hard time calling social science real science. In an intercultural training not only an easy-to-grasp concept of culture is needed, participants also need to be trained to successfully interact with cultures foreign to them. Social scientist have come up with the concept of cultural dimensions for understanding culture which have been used in intercultural trainings for a long time. Recently, we grew fond of a personality centered approach to cultural trainings.

In talent management and development Mindset India employs the psychometric personality tests of Harrison Assessments Talent Solution. We have come to appreciate the test and its underlying concepts not only for pre-training/coaching assessment but also for use in the cultural training/coaching itself. The test report groups different personality traits into paradoxical pairs – an example of which you see on the left side. Apart from shedding light on the participant’s personality and work related behavioral preferences the Paradox Theory™ - as one of the underlying concepts - greatly helps to adapt to intercultural differences.

Cultural dimensions compare different cultural phenomena mostly on a national level. They attempt to define a culture’s value system and draw on a culture’s history. T. Parsons, E. Schein, G. Hofstede, Hall, and A. Thomas are some of the social scientist who have contributed to the study of cultural dimensions and standards. Research has proven that at least some of them are quite stable and reliable, others are subject to change like Hofstede’s individualism-collectivism cultural dimension. Regardless of their usage to understanding a different culture, they do not offer a lot potential for personal change to the individual who is trying to adapt to a new cultural - be it national, regional, or organizational. Knowledge of cultural dimensions helps to reduce uncertainty (which according to Hofstede is worth a lot for Germans and is a cultural dimension in itself) when dealing with members of other cultures. In cultural trainings tactics can be developed to work around the differences in time and task management, different notions of stratification of power, of individuality, etc., but that is where it ends. Most cultural dimensions are limited to nations and have been criticized for that. They deal with the macro level and give little information about the members of a culture and the degree they have internalized these cultural norms.

Cultural dimension can help to identify which personality traits are favored by a particular national culture and give a decent overview. Some cultural dimensions are backed up by empirical data from a multitude of studies undertaken on a national level like the one Hofstede did in the 1980s. The personal view of members of one culture on their own culture or on another culture should not be trusted, as Edgar Schein (1985, p. 46) describes it in his groundbreaking work on organizational cultures very nicely: because of its pervasiveness culture is difficult to perceive as whole and thus its parts are often taken to be the whole. The Indian tale of the blind men and the elephant also illustrates this phenomenon very nicely.

That way cultural dimensions provide an overview on a national level and help to identify which personality traits «are in high demand» because of correspondence with cultural dimensions. For example, a national culture with great POWERDISTANCE, a cultural dimension that describes the social distance between the ones having power from the ones acknowledging the powerful as being such, will most likely not foster personality traits like COLLABORATIVE or WANTS AUTONOMY in its members, which the Harrison Assessments report defines as: “The tendency to collaborate with others when making decisions” and “The degree or desire or need to have freedom or independence from authority.” In the same way, a national culture with low POWERDISTANCE like Sweden or The Netherlands will create an atmosphere where people will develop exactly the above-mentioned personality traits as decisions are often discussed at great length by individuals who desire autonomy. Having identified the key personality traits will make it a lot easier to train for that particular culture.

Cultural dimensions are one-dimensional allowing members of a certain culture to have only one attribute at a time which is a setback that many participants of my trainings felt when I asked them how they would see themselves in regard to a specific cultural dimension: «Why do I have to be either-or?» Harrison’s paradox graph is two-dimensional: a person can possess two seemingly opposing personality traits at the same time. On the left, the paradox of communication illustrates this ability. The concept of the paradox of communication enhances very nicely Hall’s cultural dimension HIGH CONTEXT/LOW CONTEXT (Hall 2004: Understanding cultural differences). In LOW CONTEXT countries, like Germany, being FRANK is more often than not appropriate in many social interactions or contexts. In HIGH CONTEXT countries, like India, social interactions or contexts require both FRANKNESS and DIPLOMACY, though it seems that the latter is the mandatory mode of communication in the majority of situations. When preparing to interact with colleagues from India, it would helpful for persons from LOW CONTEXT countries to be strong in both of these two modes of communication and having the ability to tell when what is appropriate.

Having a kind of balance between opposing traits will be ideal for any kind of cultural environment as it affords a maximum of behavioral alternatives. Persons who can be both – FRANK and DIPLOMATIC – just need to apply contextual knowledge about the specific cultures they are interacting with and will be fitting in perfectly. Supplying that kind of contextual knowledge is, of course, one the objectives of an intercultural training as well as training to actually apply that knowledge. And training is necessary as that is always fascinating to see how deeply ingrained cultural patterns of behavior are.

The above example goes to show the benefit of using personality traits for intercultural trainings. They offer a great opportunity for personal growth that transcends their use in a specific intercultural situation. Being an experts in both modes of communication will be useful in a broad variety of social interactions even within one’s own culture. An additional advantage of using traits is the avoidance of discussions about the erosion or non-existence of national cultures which I had many a times when only using cultural dimensions.

Using Harrison Assessments psychometric tests gives the opportunity to explore the organizational culture in detail by assessing its members’ preferences for displaying behavioral traits in that organization and establishing a base rate or thumb print. While national cultures can be very strong, organizational cultures might overrule a national cultures call for DIPLOMACY, for example, by encourage a free flow of ideas among its members. An assessment of the personality traits of the members of an organization (or sub group within that organization) will then give the maximum of insight when commencing an international project, merger, etc. Cultural dimensions always operate on a much broader level as most studies have been undertaken comparing national cultures.

I trust that this article gives you some insight into our methodology. Please contact us, if you want to know more.

Best regards,
Sascha Bosetzky