Five Oaks Consulting

Organizational culture, national culture and how they come together in INGOs

Questions rummaging through my mind

How do national culture differences affect organizational ways of working — and ways of managing and leading?

How does the presence of many different national cultures among staff shape the organizational culture of an NGO?

To start with the obvious: The staff of INGOs typically consist of people from many different national cultures. This is even more so the case as many INGOs have focused on increasing the diversity of their staff body—including for managers and leaders. National cultures from global North no longer predominate, although global North-imprinted organizational cultures tend to remain in place for a lot longer. So how does the presence of all these national cultures shape the organizational culture of an NGO?

A new resource

Recently, I became aware of an interesting new research-based source on national culture differences—updated research by Erin Meyer, the American-French academic who works at the famous INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France. Her book, The Culture Map (2014) has been recommended to me by several NGO types. Erin has launched a new website, the Culture Mapping tool, which allows you to compare specific sets of countries in neat ways with each other, based on the following dimensions:

  • Communications: from ‘high context’ communication styles to ‘low context’ ones
  • Evaluating: from indirect negative feedback to direct ones
  • Leading: from hierarchical cultures to egalitarian ones
  • Deciding: From top-down cultures to consensual ones
  • Trusting: from relationship-based cultures to task-based ones
  • Disagreeing: from confrontational cultures to those that avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: from linear-based cultures to flexible time-based cultures
  • Persuading: from applications-first cultures to principle-first ones

The questions this sparked in me

Erin’s research sparked the following questions:

  • How does the presence of all these national cultures in INGOs shape their organizational culture?
  • What happens when the NGO manager’s leadership style, informed by national culture, is in clear tension with–let’s say–the espoused leadership model of ‘transformational leadership’, feminist leadership, servant leadership, you name it? This would suggest the person has to be one kind of leader in the daytime, but at night and on the weekend be another person? So much for authentic leadership and ‘bringing your whole self to work’ ideals in that case?
  • Who came up with these newer, aspirational leadership models that are now popular in some INGOs anyway?
  • As leadership and management of many INGOs increasingly is populated by a much more diverse set of people in terms of national culture, when and how will this make the organizational culture less global North-normed?
  • As INGOs have increased their leadership coming from national cultures in the global South, I sometimes see people being ‘spit out’ quite quickly by the dominant culture. Is this because the person’s identity (their lived experience, the non-NGO functional or professional background they may have brought, etc.) is different, and the predominant org culture is unwilling to ‘enlarge the tent’ and embrace this?
  • We know from the research on staff diversity that a greater diversity of people, while definitely beneficial to the organization’s outcomes, productivity, innovation, and creativity in the medium term, in the short term may lead to greater chances of miscommunication, mistrust, increased tension and conflict. As many NGOs are becoming more truly global, will the presence of an ever-greater number of national cultures further enhance these short-term challenges?
  • For those NGOs intent on increasing their global balance of affiliates, sections, members etc, will these new members submit to ‘isomimicry’, i.e. the expectation from the global North members that their organizations will look like them, or will they introduce different forms of ‘organizational being’ to truly diversify the NGO?
  • And what does this mean for change management approaches? To draw from another source on national differences in what’s expected from leaders and managers, (the GLOBE project, following the initial work on national cultures by Geert Hofstede, the Dutch researcher): surely differences in, for instance, performance orientation, power difference, assertiveness, uncertainty avoidance, future orientation, humane orientation, and ingroup collectivism affect how change leaders and change managers need to go about their work?

Many questions, few answers….. but let’s think about this together

 

I have few answers to the questions above (primarily some gut sense and anecdotal observations), but it would be very worthwhile to brainstorm on them together. Let’s talk if this sparks further ideas or thoughts! Ping me at tosca@5oaksconsulting.org

In the meantime, here’s an earlier blog post from me about why I am quite skeptical of hiring and promoting ‘cultural rebels’ as a strategy towards organizational change.

 

Links for further reading and thinking

A summary of dimensions derived from the GLOBE project, a very interesting long term research project on cultural differences in leadership and management models:

https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-principlesofmanagement/chapter/dimensions-of-cultural-difference-and-their-effect/

Erin Meyer’s Culture Mapping Tool:  (regretfully, the tool is no longer available for free)

Erin’s book The Culture Map

One could argue that being comfortable in a global North-based national culture is a source of informal power. Here is a handy visualization of this particular form of informal power, plus many others. My colleague-consultant Esther Kwaku and Iare co-created the list based on work we did for the International Civil Society Centre this past year. With credit to MEDA, the Canadian development agency, who had the list converted into this nifty graphic image (they liked the list as a prompt to spur useful conversation).

A short video with me about how I define organizational culture