Geert Hofstede’s work is some of the most celebrated and cited for its role in the study of leadership and its manifestations in various cultures. The information he has collected proves extremely valuable in the study of these cultures and how the cultural experience relates to leadership. In this paper, I will analyze the research that Hofstede completed to come to his opinions about the role of leadership and how it determines the personality and behavior of people in leadership roles in different cultures. The study analyzes whether people are the same, despite where they are from, but it concludes that there are profound differences due to the cultural upbringing. The research offered in Hofstede’s studies helps to determine whether the culture in which a person is raised affects the way they behave. While there are differences of opinion about the value of Hofstede’s work, it can’t be denied how extensive it is and how it adds to the debate about the cultural effects on people, particularly leaders. In an age where the global village is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, studies into world’s cultures provide much-needed insights into the workings of each nation and what makes up its leaders.
In his studies and conclusions about the characteristics of people in various cultures, Hofstede completed a survey that consists of 116,000 questionnaires. This included responses from 60,000 people from more than 50 countries throughout the world. He worked with IBM to complete this research, which was extremely extensive. After collecting the data, Hofstede developed a factor analysis of 32 of the questions in 40 of the countries. This information was used to identify four dimensions he classified as bipolar. These include “Power Distance,” “Individualism/Collectivism,” “Uncertainty Avoidance,” and “Masculinity/ Femininity.” This information became the basis for the way he characterized each country’s culture for its leaders (Jones, 2007).
While this work is largely celebrated for the way in which it communicates clearly and truthfully to the public, it is also criticized — as are many large bodies of work. Some academics have even discredited all of his work, saying his conclusions are all assumptions. It should be noted, however, than many more intellectuals support his body of work than those who oppose it. “Not all of what Hofstede has said stands up to the public enquiry, the majority of his findings have weathered the storms of time, and will continue to guide multi-national practitioners into the ‘global’ future,” (Jones, 2007).
Various components are identified in Hofstede’s study, including law, respect for individuality, nature of power and authority, rights of property, concept of deity, relation of individual to state, national identity and loyalty, and values, customs and mores. These categories can be applied as a broad starting point in determining the values of a culture and how they relate to leadership. The relationship between the aforementioned sections lead to an understanding the differences in cultures and what leads people to act the way they do. In looking into these factors, Hofstede needed to come up with a way in which to define culture. He points out that there are about 164 definitions of culture that were documented up to 1951. But he settles on culture being, “A collective programming of the mind which distinguishes one group from another,” or “Mental programming … patterns of thinking and feeling and potential acting,” (Jones, 2007).
Hofstede made several discoveries in the differences of behaviors among leaders in different cultures. He placed these into the following categories: “Power Distance,” which relates to the degree of the unequal distribution of wealth and power among the demographics. He classifies this into what is generally tolerated by the general public. He ranks each country based on its degree to which it has a wide separation between wealth and power among the population. For example, Malaysia ranks extremely low on his scale. This means there is a large distance between the ranks in organizations. He also implies through this area of study that the communications from the top to the bottom of the employee ladder is not direct. Instead, the information is passed down through a command chain, meaning a leader won’t speak directly to an entry-level employee, for example. Rather, the message will be passed on. Israel is at the other end of the scale, which means a boss and lower-level employee can speak quite freely to each other, (Wu, 2006).
The next category that Hofstede delves into is the “Individualism.” This is what he uses to measure if the general preference of each leader, and every other employee, is to work alone or in a group. This category is efficient at laying out an understanding of the degree to which the community is integrated. Nations that have been able to maintain their history, he finds, are more likely to work in teams. They have a stronger identity because their culture hasn’t become “fractured,” (Jones, 2007). Whether the organization has a team atmosphere determines the way in which the leader conducts themselves. The type of role changes whether that leader is conducting a group, and using their input regularly to instigate changes, or if they are working with people one-on-one. Each type of activity has its own skills that are needed from the leader. The United States was measured by Hofstede as ranking the lowest on the scale of individualism, meaning they would rather work alone than in a group. “This comes from a cultural upbringing which expects people to be independent at a very early age,” (Jones, 2007). Guatemala is at the other end of the scale, ranking the highest in team atmosphere. Guatemalan people tend to complete the vast majority of their work in groups. This implies that the people of Guatemala have close family ties and the support from the community is extremely strong.
Hofstede then ranks the “Masculinity” of the country at hand. While the scale could imply that it ranks exclusively to the dominance of gender in the society, that isn’t entirely the case. Instead, Hofstede looks at how typical masculine traits, such as authority, performance, success and assertiveness manifest themselves in the culture — and how they dominate over typical female qualities, which he states relate closely with quality of life, personal relationships, welfare and service. These types of characteristics that are applied to the country as a whole, dictate the way in which the individual leaders in the nation behave. Japan is the lowest-ranking country on Hofstede’s scale in this category, meaning the country expresses extremely male qualities. In the workplace, leaders are more likely to be autocratic. Sweden and Norway rank on the other end of Hofstede’s spectrum. The leaders in this country are more likely to be empathetic towards their employees and peers. Personal ties and relationships are considered extremely valued in these Scandinavian countries, (Wu, 2006).
The final category in which Hofstede measures each country is the “Uncertainty Avoidance” category. This category measures the extent to where people feel threatened by not having much structure, or they are dismayed by events that are uncertain. It is a reference to how people handle future situations and whether there is inherent control on whether the future is out of their control. Clear rules and guidelines are needed for leaders who rank low on the uncertainty avoidance scale. Greece is ranked as the lowest on Hofstede’s scale. This means that Greek leaders are less likely to make a decision, and they are more inclined to have work routines that are structured. Once again, Sweden ranks at the other end of this spectrum. Swedish leaders are able to work without having a set structure and they are able to adapt quickly to volatility, (Wu, 2006).
While his research is extensive, the arguments discrediting his information is plenty. For example, many people argue that the categories in which he investigates each culture isn’t entirely relevant. There is no way, researchers argue, to be able to accurately measure the leadership roles or any other component of Hofstede’s research. The researchers argue that the information is too subjective and is culturally sensitive. But Hofstede argues the surveys are only one method by which he delves into the information. Many methods to garner information about each culture are employed in his studies, (Jones, 2007).
Among the most popular criticisms of his work is that it is culturally homogenous. In his studies, Hofstede generalizes the attitudes of those who live in each culture. “However, most nations are groups of ethnic units,” (Jones, 2007). Due to this lack of delving into each subgroup, the study is limited in taking into consideration the various factors that make up a given culture. Furthermore, Hofstede is criticized for studying individuals in a society that may not make up the overall demographic. However, as has been stated in this essay, Hofstede questioned 60,000 from over 50 countries, which is about 1,200 people from each nation. Furthermore, Hofstede tends to put less focus on the importance of community and the variations in each community and its impact on each leader, (Jones, 2007).
National division is another area where Hofstede’s critics say he is lacking. The critics say that studying nations isn’t the best way to come to a conclusion about a culture’s leaders, because cultures aren’t limited by national borders. Instead, many cultures could be contained within a nation, while others stretch beyond the borders. But Hofstede argues that determining the national identity is the only way to measure and identify the differences in culture, (Wu, 2006).
Another area of criticism is the political influences of the time. In the outcomes, especially among the “Masculinity” and “Uncertainty Avoidance” outcomes, the time the survey was done could greatly affect the results. When Hofstede completed much of his research in Europe, the continent was in the middle of a cold war and this fear swayed the opinions of many of the country’s people. The memories of World War II were fresh in the minds of the people, and this could influence the way in which the system, and the opinions of the people, were swayed. This type of political instability caused the samples to lack in data among socialist countries and from countries that weren’t as able to complete the surveys accurately due to education barriers, such as what is often found in Third World Countries.
His research has also been criticized for only researching one company from each nation. “A study fixated on only one company cannot possibly provide information on the entire cultural system of a country,” (Jones, 2007). But, as Hofstede says, he wasn’t looking to take an absolute measure of the culture with the information gained from one company. Instead, he said he was just looking for a way to measure the differences among the cultures and the style that he chose provided a cross-sectional look at the appropriate areas needed for the analysis. He also says that the use of one multinational company prevents various companies from skewing the results because the company he chooses best represents the population, (McSweeny, 2002).
Other researchers have called the information outdated and inapplicable in today’s cultural climate. The information was collected during a time where the global village wasn’t really a part of people’s vocabulary. Due to the onset of advancements in technology, the ability of countries to deal with each other has increased significantly. Furthermore, the influences of dominant countries on others is at an all-time high, with American media spilling over into countries all over the world. This has not only affected the way in which leaders do business, but it has taken down some of the cultural barriers that were once paramount in dealings between countries. Relations among political leaders have also become stronger, with NATO and the G20. These groups have set out clearly acceptable guidelines about the way in which each nation should conduct itself.
Hofstede’s research about leaders in various cultures, critics also say, has too few dimensions and doesn’t cover enough of the variables. The four to five dimensions that encompass Hofstede’s work don’t reach far enough into the spectrum of variables that create the impact that culture has on the behavior of its leaders. Therefore, critics say, additional elements need to be included in Hofstede’s study, (McSweeny, 2002).
Finally, critics say the information doesn’t have accurate statistics. The questionnaire used by Hofstede has been used to determine the cultural nuances on several scales. These scales have cross-loadings that need to be taken into consideration. The analysis only consists of the comparison of 32 questions and 40 categories of cases, meaning relating the culture on the effect on its leaders is difficult to be consistent, (McSweeny, 2002).
Many others argue in favor of Hofstede’s research, calling it a move forward in the way the qualities of its leaders are determined. As the reader has seen, several components do point to the areas where Hofstedes research, as it relates to the leaders in each culture, are lacking. However, as noted, there are many more people who support the research, and they had this to say: “During the time of its delivery, there was very little work on culture, and at this time many businesses were just entering the international arena and were experiencing difficulties; they were crying out for credible advice,” (Jones, 2007). According to this supporter, the work he completed went past the demand for guidance — meaning it laid out the groundwork for a window into the true impact of culture on the leaders of the given country. This means scholars were turning their attention to the impact of culture on the nation’s leaders. Supporters of this idea consider Hofstede to be a pioneer in the exploration of culture and its impact on the leaders of these countries.
Supporters also touted the work for being of a rigorous design that had systematic data that was collected into a coherent theory. Leaders in the markets were finally understood for their cultural qualities that were explained, at least in part, by Hofstede’s research.
The work was also acclaimed for being relatively accurate in explaining the characteristics of each culture. The research initiated by IBM confirmed the research that was conducted by Hofstede. Of the 61 studies looked at, four of the replications of the studies that were created were confirmed entirely, while 15 showed partial confirmation. While the IBM confirmation wasn’t all-encompassing and didn’t outright reject or outright confirm the research, it does back some of the claims. Additionally, several studies that follow similar guidelines as what Hofstede conducted were executed and came to similar conclusions.
While the research is debatable, the fact that so many people have cited the work and call it a breakthrough in the study of leaders in various cultures indicates there is at least some degree of relevance to the information. Hofstede’s research has stood the test of time, meaning it does have value that is at least partially concrete. Whether the research is all-encompassing or just a shadow of what a culture’s impact on its leaders really is, will continue to be debated. But what I believe is undeniable, is its ability to provide at least some insight into the differences of behaviors among leaders of different cultures.
Hofstede: Long Term/Short Term. (1997, July 30). Andrews University.
Jones, M.L. (2007) Hofstede – Culturally Questionable? University of Wollogong.
McSweeney, B. (2002, January) Hofstede’s Model of National Cultural Differences and Their
Consequences: A Triumph – A Failure of Analysis. Human Relations. Vol. 55, No. 1.
Wu, M.Y. (2006). Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions 30 Years Later: A Study of Taiwan and the
United States. Western Illinois University.