A prophet who was not honoured in his own country

IM Geert Hofstede (1928-2020)


Geert Hofstede is no longer with us. He died on Wednesday, 12 February, at the age of 91 in Ede, his place of residence. For years, the emeritus professor of Maastricht University was known as ‘the most quoted economist in the Netherlands’. Which is bizarre, because if there was anything that Hofstede wasn’t, it was an economist. He looked pityingly down upon the idea of man as an individual who consistently maximises his – yes, in particular his – benefits, at most impeded by incomplete knowledge of the market. Hofstede travelled the world, but has never come across such a homo economicus. He proposed the primacy of group membership. I cannot remember how often - during block openings – I got to say the phrase ‘…that distinguishes the members of one group from others’ when it came to discussing his famous Culture’s consequences from 1980?


At the School of Business and Economics (then called the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Business Administration, FdEWB), however, Hofstede was an outsider. He carried out research into international cultural differences and their effects on motivation, leadership, and decision-making within organisations. But in addition to this, he was primarily appointed to set up the study programme of International Management (IM), because on the Tongersestraat there was a growing realisation that the faculty could only become an economic success by adding the adjective international. A tedious enterprise, it soon appeared. For the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg (RUL) in the nineteen-eighties, ‘abroad’ mainly meant the Euregio Meuse-Rhine; as a result of the political constellation at the time, there was a lot could be won there. This led to scornful remarks among staff members: those IM students were supposed to do their work placements in dean Franz Palm’s backyard? After all, he lived in Eupen, a German speaking town in French-speaking Belgium. This prospect didn’t appeal to the first batch of IM students either. Maastricht  students were already thinking in terms of Sydney and Singapore, rather than Liege and Aachen. The incredible success of the programme’s successor International Business didn’t come until the nineteen-nineties, when horizons were broadened.


There was also a thing about the clashing of characters on the Maastricht shop floor. Hofstede and university managers, there’s enough to fill a book. A LinkedIn user reacted to the news of Hofstede’s death with a variant of the statement by the apostle Paulus: “He didn’t suffer fools gladly”.

In Maastricht, Geert Hofstede was professor of Organizational Anthropology and International Management. But among the anthropologists, he was on the sidelines too. He didn’t carry out qualitative research, as most anthropologists do, but quantitative research ─ and not on a small scale! His breakthrough study was based on the outcomes of some 117 thousand surveys, conducted by IBM employees in 50 countries; Hofstede was personnel manager for this American computer giant. From it, four (later six) national cultural dimensions emerged, which tens of thousands of graduates across the world can still vividly recall today. The package remains a powerful instrument, with the dimensions of Individualism-Collectivism and Power Distance as the two powerful factors. But there has always been severe criticism. It is indeed a valid question how much culture one can measure. One can also wonder whether one and the same measuring rod (Hofstede’s questionnaire) can be used for, say, Japanese and Costa Rican culture. Do people in those cultures have the same associations with terms such as ‘uncertainty’ or ‘equality’? One of the greatest merits of Hofstede’s work is that it opened the eyes of many in consultancy practices and at business schools to the dangers and blessings of cultural diversity in profit-oriented organisations. No mean feat. Gradually, other cultural researchers emerged, with their own dimensions on their laptops, but Geert Hofstede was and is the boss.


After he left Maastricht, he became even more famous than he already was. He was offered one honorary doctorate after the other. He rose high on the international ranking of management gurus. At the same time, unfortunately, he remained the proverbial prophet who is not honoured in his own country, because of the way Dutch culture tends to deal with those who stand out from the crowd. The same goes for Maastricht. At SBE, there is practically no business scientist carrying out cross-cultural research. They are all looking for universal models of behaviour, where borders between countries play no role. That’s a pity, because many still associate Maastricht with Hofstede, and vice versa.

Hofstede believed in the power of groups and communities, but as a scientist, he was an outsider, an Einzelgänger. In the words of his wife Maaike, spoken in a documentary: ‘a self-contained person’. He placed his hope in mankind, which may survive by being aware of and accepting cultural differences, but outside office hours, ‘family’ was Geert’s focal point of affection. I have seldom met a more confirmed family man. I sometimes think that what he valued most in me, when I was a PhD candidate, was the fact that I had a large family. Four children, just like he had. He never failed to bring presents for all four of them when he visited us after a long journey. A stopwatch. A country jigsaw puzzle. Always fun, always informative. “Dad, when is this bald professor coming again?”

Ad van Iterson

A prophet who was not honoured in his own country
Prof. Geert Hofstede