This review is of the first major section of the text Cross-Cultural Management: Essential Concepts, in which David C. Thomas addresses common assumptions about norms for social interaction that can affect interpersonal behavior in organizations, particularly on the management level. The rest of the book, which will be the subject of my next response, focuses on specific challenges faced by managers in various roles, and how dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds can affect the success of leadership, negotiations, decision-making, work groups, structures of international organizations, and international assignments in cross-cultural associations.
This first section, in analyzing the fundamental issues that affect the above activities in any relevant organization, sets up the methodological and conceptual basis for the rest of the text, despite the fact that it doesn’t go into great depth with issues in management per se. Overall, it presents the need for greater awareness among those dealing with colleagues, employees, managers, etc. of the sometimes quite opposed assumptions about such things as valued social behaviors, organizational structures and criteria for success that people from different cultures can bring to their business interactions, as well as the complexity involved in reaching understandings about these assumptions.
Usefully, Cross-Cultural Management includes sections on the then-current state of research into dominant patterns of difference and similarity for relevant value systems around the world. The studies discussed are primarily those that have surveyed participants from a number of countries in order to identify and distinguish common criteria that Thomas, among others working on issues in cross-cultural management, believes managers can use to perhaps better assess how they should structure their expectations of work-related behavior in cross-cultural environments. These criteria include valuations of individuality/collectivity, acceptance of hierarchical differences in power, desires for stability and harmony, emotional openness, in-group/out-group dynamics, egalitarianism, adaptability in favor of preserving one’s environment over one’s own desires, orientations towards the past, present or future, and sources of social status based on ascription or achievement, among others.
The studies that Thomas cites inherently tend to simplify complex social patterns into concise terms, creating stereotypes that could be useful guidelines for social expectations only if one also takes into account the fact that any given individual from a stereotyped society may not actually fit into the tendencies so described. If a manager does not take these stereotypes as completely accurate, and is flexible when figuring out how to appropriately incorporate knowledge of a foreign culture into specific, real-life situations, then these studies and Thomas’ presentation of them could be beneficial for the appropriate audiences.
More importantly still, this section of the text raises potential questions that managers can and should ask themselves when in relevant situations. By highlighting a number of the ways in which cultures are similar and diverse, and indicating some of the ways in which these variations manifest in practice, Thomas repeatedly points to the fact that different social groups, whether divided by nationality or by other criteria, will come to any interaction with their own set of expectations and value systems, and that being open to determining what those may be is significantly more productive than relying on prior assumptions.
Indeed, the structure of this book even reflects this method, as the early chapters do not assume that the reader has a strong grasp of what crucial terms like “culture,” “globalization,” and “management” mean, and how they relate to each other. In providing an introduction to what these concepts mean, why they are relevant, how they are studied, what some of their tangible effects are on organizations, and how managers should be aware of their variations around the world, Thomas effectively provides an example of the way in which managers can approach their own interactions with a step-by-step method that seeks to avoid assumptions about people’s backgrounds and provides a common ground on which to build a productive conversation – with the more specific analyses of cross-cultural management practices found later in this book being the intended conversation. In some ways, this is in and of itself a method probably based on American tendencies, given the greater inclination in this culture to emphasize the right of people to participate in activities democratically, as well as the common valuation given to handling problems directly and in a linear fashion. Does this mean that if this book had been written by Japanese scholars, would they have taken the same data and interpreted it in a noticeably different fashion; say, recommending more situational and indirect methods of determining how to communicate across cultural differences?
Additionally, the section of this text that I have read so far has reinforced for me the impression that UNESCO’s approach to World Heritage Sites, which fundamentally require cross-cultural management because of the international nature of the United Nations, the World Heritage Sites and their more localized management agencies, does not take into account enough of these differences among cultures despite their guiding principles of celebrating these differences.
For one, it assumes that a people would want to preserve a Site in a particular state and to have it managed according to the values commonly promoted in “western” cultures. One of these values is the idea that individual achievements should be celebrated for their singular worth, rather than just focusing on the status of the culture as a whole, while a related one would be the degree to which less traditionally powerful stakeholders should have the right to participate in decisions about the future of their historic sites. I also would not be surprised if many of the organizations that work on World Heritage Sites around the globe, given their common derivation from European or American preservation history and socio-political value systems, face misunderstandings in their work around the Sites due to insufficient awareness or practice of the points Thomas makes later in his book.
At this point, I am sure I need to learn more about both the current practices and the recommendations made by authors like Thomas in order to properly critique how these World Heritage-related organizations deal with their own variations on cross-cultural management, and I look forward to doing so.