It's never easy prospering in a new city or a new environment. Understanding the value system of foreign culture will increase your effectiveness and put you at ease. In the prior newsletters, I discussed a framework for values and explained three of the five cultural dimensions in more detail: individual vs. collective, equality vs. hierarchy, and tough vs. tender cultures. This last newsletter in the series will address the final two cultural dimensions: dynamic vs. stable and variations in perceptions of time.
Dynamic vs. Stable Dimension
As I write this letter, I am thinking about one of our LIF Group affiliates, Stephen Yas, who recently moved from Chicago to Shanghai in order to work in his dream job, Chief Designer for a multi-national architectural firm. He will stay involved with LIF Group's client strategic reviews and continue to provide a valued perspective. Perhaps a future newsletter will reveal how he is adapting to a new living and working environment that, in itself, is quite dynamic. In fact, I can't imagine any other country at the farthest end of the dynamic dimension than China. The spectrum defining this dimension references a culture's ability to tolerate ambiguity in its values and norms. A stable culture formally enforces rules regarding values through a rigid legal or moral structure. A key component of a dynamic culture is the ability of its members to tolerate uncertainty in the future and adapt to the unexpected. Cultures that are more comfortable with change have a greater tolerance for risk and have less emotional attachments to the status quo. At the same time, members of these cultures tend to be mobile, both in terms of geography and for whom they work. Of course, movement creates challenges for organizations both to attract and to retain employees whom they have committed to training or promoting. From time to time, organizations may also have to rein in their employees who may be too eager to take risks and make decisions on the fly.
The United States used to be more dynamic but with the housing crisis, many of the unemployed cannot afford or do not want to leave their houses to take a job in a new location. I spoke to an executive with a search firm who told me that during a recent job search, she had three of her top candidates turn down the job. One turned down the job because he couldn't take a loss on the sale of his house, given his investment portfolio at the age of fifty. Another turned down the job because the spouse was working and didn't want to risk not finding a new job if the family relocated. The third person wanted more security and a buyout of future stock options.
Contrast that situation to the migration in China of workers from their home towns to the cities. According to the China Daily paper in October 2011, "China's migrant population now numbers 221 million, or 16.5 percent of all citizens, and as the numbers grow so do the problems these people face. Most migrants do not enjoy the same rights as local people; therefore, [they] face difficulties integrating into urban life." This mass migration creates urban problems as 10 million of the Chinese migrants earn less than $78 per month and about 44 million of them cannot afford to work and live in cities at all. The dynamism shows just how eager and desperate migrants are to tap into the economy provided by urban living. The downside is that instability will threaten the current political incumbents and may be a time bomb waiting to explode.
Organizations attempting to make inroads into more stable cultures, on the other hand, face a different challenge: specifically, how to encourage their employees to embrace change, make decisions independently and take risks. Individuals who come from stable cultures tend to follow the letter of the law and rarely deviate from rules or orders from a superior. These individuals also fear failure and will often play it safe -- even when a situation clearly calls for a bit of bold decision making.
Time: Past Present or Future Dimension
Cultures can be defined in part by the way people within them think about time. Consider whether members of a culture have a precise interpretation of time -- such as an appreciation for punctuality -- or whether members have a looser or more and fluid conception of time. Obviously, the challenge for leaders in organizations moving from a punctual to a flexible culture is the ability to be patient. Cultural attitudes toward time are also exhibited in focusing on the past, the present, or the future. Past-oriented societies tend to regard prior experiences and events in the form of traditional wisdom as their guide to decision making. Present-focused cultures tend to think spontaneously and make decisions that maximize the impact of the moment, since they have little concern for what has happened before or what will come next. Future-focused societies will make sacrifices or investments today with the sole goal of reaping the benefits of those decisions down the road.
Time serves as a surprisingly personal value within any culture. Many studies indicate that living in the present allows you to live a full life by discouraging ruminating over past mistakes or waiting for future goals. Personally, I believe you need to honor the past, live in the present and prepare contingency plans for the future. Take a breath and figure out what is the dominant culture where you work and act accordingly. Learn the values, adapt for success and recognize the more you stretch from your comfort zone in different cultures, the more opportunities you will find.