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"You can't make a Dutchman from a Chinese"

"You can't make a Dutchman from a Chinese"

Culture’s Consequences (1980) by Hofstede has not become obsolete at all

To what extent is the behaviour of managers influenced by culture? Former UM professor Geert Hofstede was the first to ask that question and in doing so became world-famous. His book Culture’s Consequences (1980) has been quoted more than 80 thousand times. American research is doubtful about his conclusions, claiming that it is in particular the circumstances that determine the style of management.

For years, Geert Hofstede was the most quoted Dutch economist and he now has ten honorary doctorates to his name, the most recent one being from Romania. And then to think that he is not actually an economist, but an engineer and a social psychologist.

At the end of the nineteen-sixties, Hofstede (1928) worked for IBM and discovered that the 53 offices spread across the world showed tremendous cultural differences. In his book Culture's Consequences (1980), one of the most influential management books of the twentieth century, he distinguished five dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism versus Collectivism, Masculinity versus Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and - added later – Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation. Based on this, Hofstede made lists of countries using a score ranging from zero to one hundred. Dutch culture scored high on 'individualism', and low on ‘masculinity’ - which indicates sex equality.

In the last forty years, the world has changed completely – or globalised - but Hofstede’s book has by no means become hopelessly obsolete. Marielle Heijltjes, professor of Managerial Behaviour, refers to the GLOBE project in the nineteen-nineties. The study, in which 15 thousand researchers from all over the whole world participated, endorsed – following Hofstede - the importance of culture in the style of management. The differences between Northern and Southern Europe, for example, were clear. “Where Power Distance is concerned, it is not a matter of course in the North to exercise one’s authority, whereas it is in the South.”

Nevertheless, Hofstede - who is never at a loss for a spicy opinion – disparages the GLOBE study. “That is second-rate research, no more than an attempt to imitate my work. It adds very little.”

Light version

Recently, American researcher Arthur Jago from the University of Missouri published a study based upon interviews among 6,500 managers from fourteen countries. His conclusion is that the practical circumstances under which a manager makes decisions have a greater influence on his behaviour than the culture. Leadership differs more per situation than per culture.

“That is just typical bull by people who want to quantify everything, making lists of what is important all the way down to what is unimportant,” says Hofstede. “Of course circumstances matter, but I made sure that culture was brought into the mix. So that people realise that you cannot make a Dutchman from a Chinese. By culture, by the way, I mean the things that children learn until their tenth birthday, the things that stay with you your whole life. And the culture of an organisation stems from the attitude and the standards and values of its founders.”

The five dimensions in Culture’s Consequences constitute a useful instrument for managers to classify the world, says Heijltjes. “With the idea of ‘Power Distance’ in your head, you are better able to understand what is happening on the work floor. However, it is not a predictor. In the sense of “I am going to a country with great power distance, so this is how I should behave.” But it does keep you on your toes. These days, our students no longer need to read Culture’s Consequences, but Hofstede's dimensions are still important ingredients of the study programme.”

There is, by the way, a light version, entitled Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, of which half a million copies have been sold in 21 countries.


Hofstede, who turns 89 this year, tries to stay on top of the professional literature to some extent, he says. “A few years ago, marketing researchers embraced my work, so I decided to focus more on that field too. I knew nothing about it and had to conclude that it is very useful, that it has a lot to do with culture. It is interesting to know where a product will catch on.”

He still receives many invitations for lectures. “Not too long ago, he went to China and Japan, but that is no longer on the cards.”

At the moment, he is writing his memoirs in Ede where he lives. “Not for publication mind you, just for family. I am a true family man. I will be 62 years married this year, we have four sons, ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I don't think that I am important enough to publish an autobiography. I would rather - should they find me important enough later on - that someone were to come forward to write a biography.”

A few years ago, he took to the stage again in Maastricht. Hofstede gave a lecture on the financial crisis. The students welcomed him like an aged pop star.

He will soon go to Maastricht again. For some ten years now, since Mark Peterson has occupied the Geert Hofstede endowed chair, the American (together with the Dane Mikael Søndergaard) has organised a master class based on Hofstede's work. That is where he will teach for two days in the last week of June.



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