A question many people have asked me is how national and
organizational cultures relate and which of them is stronger. My answer? “It depends”.
There is no doubt that the two kinds of culture both exert powerful
influences that may sometimes conflict. A company’s culture may be informal while a country’s culture could be
rather formal. A company may be encouraging and rewarding risk-taking in a country where people are generally risk-averse.
Or, vice versa. All of these call for some kind of resolution.
The influences of national cultures shape strong value systems among their members. The resulting shared values, preferences,
and behaviors of population groups differ widely between coun- tries. That is frequently also the case between different subgroups
within a country, so keep in mind that the term “national culture” can be misleading. It may only be referring
to part of the people in a given country.
Organizational culture helps establish common values and align behaviors among employees. Many multinational companies use
employee handbooks, corporate ethics guidelines, written value definitions, and other tools for their employees world-wide in
order to drive this kind of alignment. They may be partly founded in national cultures, but it appears also seem to be
shaped by many other influences.
Especially in the United States with its strong preference for
individualism, a wide and diverse range of company cultures exists. They may reflect personality and preferences of a founder,
or be influenced by other charismatic leaders, often growing over a long time to become mature and consistent.
Which is Stronger?
In her book International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, McGill professor Nancy
Adler asks whether organizational culture does “erase or at least diminish national culture”. Her surprising
conclusion is that there actually is more evidence to the contrary. Adler cites researcher André Laurent’s finding
that cultural differences were “significantly greater among managers working within the same multinational corporation than
they were among managers working for companies in their own native country. When working for multinational companies,
Germans seemingly became more German, Americans more American, Swedes more Swedish, and so on.” The reasons are not
well-understood, but it appears that employees may be resisting a company’s corporate culture if it is counter to the
beliefs of their own national one.
One factor may offset this: at some multinationals, a combination of
targeted hiring processes and employee self-selection in- creasingly establishes foreign workforces that are more in harmo- ny with
the respective corporate culture. Those who fit well stay with the company, those who do not either do not get hired in
the first place or leave within a few years. This seems to have intensi- fied over the last decade. Companies strongly
nurturing the trend may be able to maintain a fairly homogenous culture across their foreign locations. However, such
companies may be giving up several of the benefits of cross-cultural diversity and risk becoming estranged from national cultures
with possible consequences to local relationships.
All of this drives important conclusions for multinational com- panies:
- One cannot safely assume that even a very powerful corporate culture will
render national influences insignifi- cant. Employees facing conflicts are likely to respond in ways typical of their
national culture, not their organiza- tional one. Seeking to employ only those in a country who are
“sufficiently compatible” comes with its own set of drawbacks.
- It is in a company’s best interest to carefully assess its
organizational culture against the local cultures in all countries and regions it is engaged in.
- When recognizing potential conflicts between organi- zational and foreign national
cultures, a company should strive to take preventative action in order to keep local employees motivated and committed. This
may require changing or toning down aspects of the organization’s culture.
- Similarly, the company must develop ways to resolve actual conflicts in ways
that keep its foreign employees at ease. Again, this may require some compromising bet- ween the cultures.