The Seven Dimensions of Culture

Understanding and Managing Cultural Differences

Cultural Dimensions

What distinguishes one culture from another?

© iStockphoto/geopaul

Many of us work routinely with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

Often this goes well, and the cultural differences are interesting and enriching. However, sometimes things go wrong, for reasons that we may not understand.

This is where it's important to understand the differences between cultures, so that we can work with people more effectively, and prevent misunderstandings.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner's Seven Dimensions of Culture help us do this. We'll look at the seven dimensions in this article, and we'll explore how you can apply the model in your own situation.

About the Model

The Seven Dimensions of Culture were identified by management consultants Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, and the model was published in their 1997 book, "Riding the Waves of Culture."

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner developed the model after spending 10 years researching the preferences and values of people in dozens of cultures around the world. As part of this, they sent questionnaires to more than 46,000 managers in 40 countries.

They found that people from different cultures aren't just randomly different from one another; they differ in very specific, even predictable, ways. This is because each culture has its own way of thinking, its own values and beliefs, and different preferences placed on a variety of different factors.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner concluded that what distinguishes people from one culture compared with another is where these preferences fall in one of the following seven dimensions:

  1. Universalism versus particularism.
  2. Individualism versus communitarianism.
  3. Specific versus diffuse.
  4. Neutral versus emotional.
  5. Achievement versus ascription.
  6. Sequential time versus synchronous time.
  7. Internal direction versus outer direction.

We'll look at each dimension in detail below.

You can use the model to understand people from different cultural backgrounds better, so that you can prevent misunderstandings and enjoy a better working relationship with them. This is especially useful if you do business with people from around the world, or if you manage a diverse group of people.

The model also highlights that one culture is not necessarily better or worse than another; people from different cultural backgrounds simply make different choices.

However, the model doesn't tell you how to measure people's preferences on each dimension. Therefore, it's best to use it as a general guide when dealing with people from different cultures.

Applying the Model

Let's look at each of the dimensions in detail, and explore some of the strategies that you can use with people who fit the characteristics highlighted in each dimension .

Note 1:

For each dimension, we've included some of the national cultures that Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner identified as having a preference at each extreme of that particular dimension. You can use this as a general guide, but remember to treat people as individuals, and to avoid stereotyping.

Note 2:

The cultural dimensions don't take into account people's personal experiences or differences between sub-cultures within the country, so bear this in mind when you're applying the model. This is especially relevant in today's global environment, where people can be influenced by many different cultures.

Note 3:

Be sensible in how you apply these strategies. In practice, there will be many other factors that will have a bearing on how you manage people and communicate with them.

1. Universalism Versus Particularism
(Rules Versus Relationships)

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Universalism People place a high importance on laws, rules, values, and obligations. They try to deal fairly with people based on these rules, but rules come before relationships.
  • Help people understand how their work ties into their values and beliefs.
  • Provide clear instructions, processes, and procedures.
  • Keep promises and be consistent.
  • Give people time to make decisions.
  • Use an objective process to make decisions yourself, and explain your decisions if others are involved.
Particularism People believe that each circumstance, and each relationship, dictates the rules that they live by. Their response to a situation may change, based on what's happening in the moment, and who's involved.
  • Give people autonomy to make their own decisions.
  • Respect others' needs when you make decisions.
  • Be flexible in how you make decisions.
  • Take time to build relationships and get to know people so that you can better understand their needs.
  • Highlight important rules and policies that need to be followed.

Typical universalist cultures include the U.S., Canada, the U.K, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.

Typical particularistic cultures include Russia, Latin-America, and China.

2. Individualism Versus Communitarianism
(The Individual Versus The Group)

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Individualism People believe in personal freedom and achievement. They believe that you make your own decisions, and that you must take care of yourself.
  • Praise and reward individual performance.
  • Give people autonomy to make their own decisions and to use their initiative.
  • Link people's needs with those of the group or organization.
  • Allow people to be creative   and to learn from their mistakes.
Communitarianism People believe that the group is more important than the individual. The group provides help and safety, in exchange for loyalty. The group always comes before the individual.
  • Praise and reward group performance.
  • Don't praise individuals publically.
  • Allow people to involve others in decision making.
  • Avoid showing favoritism.

Typical individualist cultures include the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.

Typical communitarian cultures include countries in Latin-America, Africa, and Japan.

3. Specific Versus Diffuse
(How Far People Get Involved)

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Specific People keep work and personal lives separate. As a result, they believe that relationships don't have much of an impact on work objectives, and, although good relationships are important, they believe that people can work together without having a good relationship.
  • Be direct and to the point.
  • Focus on people's objectives before you focus on strengthening relationships.
  • Provide clear instructions, processes, and procedures.
  • Allow people to keep their work and home lives separate.
Diffuse People see an overlap between their work and personal life. They believe that good relationships are vital to meeting business objectives, and that their relationships with others will be the same, whether they are at work or meeting socially. People spend time outside work hours with colleagues and clients.
  • Focus on building a good relationship   before you focus on business objectives.
  • Find out as much as you can about the people that you work with and the organizations that you do business with.
  • Be prepared to discuss business on social occasions, and to have personal discussions at work.
  • Try to avoid turning down invitations to social functions.

Typical specific cultures include the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands.

Typical diffuse cultures include Argentina, Spain, Russia, India, and China.

4. Neutral Versus Emotional
(How People Express Emotions)

 Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Neutral People make a great effort to control their emotions. Reason influences their actions far more than their feelings. People don't reveal what they're thinking or how they're feeling.
  • Manage your emotions   effectively.
  • Watch that your body language   doesn't convey negative emotions.
  • "Stick to the point" in meetings and interactions.
  • Watch people's reactions carefully, as they may be reluctant to show their true emotions.
Emotional People want to find ways to express their emotions, even spontaneously, at work. In these cultures, it's welcome and accepted to show emotion.

Typical neutral cultures include the U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany.

Typical emotional cultures include Poland, Italy, France, Spain, and countries in Latin-America.

5. Achievement Versus Ascription
(How People View Status)

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Achievement People believe that you are what you do, and they base your worth accordingly. These cultures value performance, no matter who you are.
  • Reward and recognize good performance appropriately.
  • Use titles only when relevant.
  • Be a good role
    model
     .
Ascription People believe that you should be valued for who you are. Power, title, and position matter in these cultures, and these roles define behavior.
  • Use titles, especially when these clarify people's status in an organization.
  • Show respect to people in authority, especially when challenging decisions.
  • Don't "show up" people in authority.
  • Don't let your authority prevent you from performing well in your role.

Typical achievement cultures include the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia.

Typical ascription cultures include France, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.

6. Sequential Time Versus Synchronous Time
(How People Manage Time)

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Sequential Time People like events to happen in order. They place a high value on punctuality, planning (and sticking to your plans), and staying on schedule. In this culture, "time is money," and people don't appreciate it when their schedule is thrown off.
  • Focus on one activity or project at a time.
  • Be punctual.
  • Keep to deadlines.
  • Set clear deadlines.
Synchronous Time People see the past, present, and future as interwoven periods. They often work on several projects at once, and view plans and commitments as flexible.
  • Be flexible in how you approach work.
  • Allow people to be flexible on tasks and projects, where possible.
  • Highlight the importance of punctuality and deadlines if these are key to meeting objectives.

Typical sequential-time cultures include Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.

Typical synchronous-time cultures include Japan, Argentina, and Mexico.

7. Internal Direction Versus Outer Direction
(How People Relate to Their Environment)

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Internal Direction
(This also known as having an internal locus of control   .)
People believe that they can control nature or their environment to achieve goals. This includes how they work with teams and within organizations.
  • Allow people to develop their skills and take control of their learning.
  • Set clear objectives that people agree with.
  • Be open about conflict and disagreement, and allow people to engage in constructive conflict.
Outer Direction
(This also known as having an external locus of control   .)
People believe that nature, or their environment, controls them; they must work with their environment to achieve goals. At work or in relationships, they focus their actions on others, and they avoid conflict where possible. People often need reassurance that they're doing a good job.

Typical internal-direction cultures include Israel, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.

Typical outer-direction cultures include China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

Tip 1:

Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions   is another model that can help you to understand different cultures. The advantage of Hofstede's model is that his research included only employees from one organization – IBM – so his findings are unlikely to be affected by differences in company culture. The disadvantage is that the culture of this company may skew more general results.

Tip 2:

To learn more about managing and working with people from specific countries and cultures, see our Managing Around the World section, and listen to our Expert Interviews with Terri Morrison and Michael Schell.

Key Points

The Seven Dimensions of Culture model was created by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, and was published in their book, "Riding the Waves of Culture."

The model says that what distinguishes people from one culture compared with another is where their preferences fall on each of the following seven dimensions:

  1. Universalism versus particularism.
  2. Individualism versus communitarianism.
  3. Specific versus diffuse.
  4. Neutral versus emotional.
  5. Achievement versus ascription.
  6. Sequential time versus synchronous time.
  7. Internal direction versus outer direction.

You can use the model to understand people from different cultural backgrounds better, so that you can work with them more effectively, and prevent misunderstandings.

Be sensible in how you apply the model. Treat people as individuals, and remember that there are many factors that will have a bearing on how you communicate and interact with other people.

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Comments (5)
  • meikhing wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you, Dianna!

    In my line of work, I am working closely with colleagues in Belgium and Ukraine. Most times, things go quite smoothly, but indeed, there are many areas for improvement.
    It could help if there are members who are from those countries, who can feedback on how this "Seven Dimensions of Culture" model relates (or does not relate) to them.

    I will also read up on the "Managing Around the World" section on US, UK and Japan. Thanks for the expert advice!

    Kind regards,
    Mei Khing
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Mei Khing,
    In our "Managing Around the World" section of the toolkit found here: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/main/newMN_TMM.php#world
    ... you will find a variety of countries featured.

    If you are interested in a particular country that isn't featured, you can always post a question asking for tips and advice from members who live there or who have worked there. Reaching out to the membership through these forum conversations is a great way to get the information you are looking for.

    I look forward to hearing more from you!

    Dianna
  • meikhing wrote Over a month ago
    Very interesting article indeed, especially in today's "globalized" world.
    Are there any references in the models to working cultures of Eastern Europe, and also countries in the Eurozone, e.g. Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, etc.?

    Cheers,
    Mei Khing
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Henk, thank you for sharing your insights. I really like your proposal of the "cultural bridge" I am going to borrow it.

    You obviously have some experience of the communication challenges across global teams, it can be interesting. What I like to remind them of, is it's a bit like driving. Once you can drive you can drive anywhere, however unless you are familiar with the local customs etc it can be 'exciting'. So observe first, consider taking a couple of private lessons and then start sensibly. I am now going to add - look for the 'cultural bridges' they are there to help you.

    cheers
    Michael
  • genals wrote Over a month ago
    Delighted to see this post. Cultural Awareness and its many dimensions was one of the most useful things I have learned in the past few years.

    A very interesting exercise is to ask individuals in your international team to position themselves on the 7 scales on a single flip chart. This will give you immediate insight into previous communication challenges you have had within the team.

    There are more than these 7 dimensions. One important one concerns direct vs indirect communication. Some cultures and/or individuals prefer to say exactly what they think. Others wrap up their views in indirect statements. Putting two of these extremes together often leads to communication issues.

    One useful tool in this context is for persons with high cultural awareness, i.e. people that can adapt to wide cultural styles, to act as bridges between people with narrow and extreme cultural styles. Often communication breakdown comes from a lack of overlap between two person's cultural styles, even when they stretch themselves. The third person, the cultural bridge, can often re-establish communication by "translating" the styles.

    Henk

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