The Need for Cultural Lens in Decision Making

                                                                                                                                                                                          By Chitra Mukunnan

Abstract: Situations are dynamic. Thoughts are divergent. Bosses are unpredictable. Subordinates are dissimilar. Peers are different in nature, quality and form . Technology and globalization are sweeping the world. But, culture inherent in workplace, people and society are diverse, constantly changing and relate to the symbolic dimension of life. Culture which is the predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group, individual or an organization, is varied and affects the roots of decision making. Though differences in cultures are very rarely the root cause of conflicts, but without the application of cultural intelligence, cognitive intelligence and modern technology may not be able to facilitate effective rational decisions.

Different national groups perceive situations differently, identify different problems, make different plans, negotiate and coordinate differently, and make different decisions during complex cognitive tasks. Equipment, procedures and professional practices of one nation may not suite the need of another nation. What is effective in one nation can receive harsh criticism in others. These differences can compromise productivity and the quality of work. But, as the world moves towards a boundary less globe, there exists unprecedented opportunities to share resources, extend perspectives and expand markets. To harness the abundant opportunities and reap the benefit of globalization, acknowledging, understanding and appreciating how people from other nations perceive events and issues are necessary. This in turn will help to anticipate actions thereby helping to influence beliefs and negotiate agreements.

Cultural awareness provides various levels of capabilities for understanding cultures (through cultural lens) and applying one’s understanding to the situation at hand.

cultural awareness

  1. Cultural Consideration (“How and Why”) introduces the generic cultural concepts along with how and why to study culture and where to find cultural factors and expertise.
  2. Cultural Knowledge (Specific Training) apart from exposing the recent history of target culture, it also highlights cultural issues like significant groups, actors, leaders cul¬tural niceties and survival language skills.
  3. Cultural Understanding (Advanced Training) refers to a deeper awareness of the specific culture that directly supports the decision making process.
  4. Cultural Competence (Decision making and Cultural Intelligence) is when cultural intelligence and cultural understanding are interconnected. This leads to focused insight and decision making.

Awareness of culture, brings about the understanding that culture is an interplay of four dynamics – unconscious and/or conscious values, beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors (Weaver 2000), cognitive thoughts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and/or perceptions, behavioral norms and actions and a relational process of relationships or socialization. In addition, there are other theories that argue culture includes material constructs (such as social institutions and organizations).

Cultures are not encoded in the human genome because they are socially created, and provide functional blueprints for dynamic systems with integrated components. Cultures are like underground rivers that run through lives and relationships, giving messages that shape perceptions, attributions, judgments and ideas of self and others. . Understanding the complexities due to cultural differences, can facilitate working and operating effectively in today’s world. Cultural differences arising out of divergent thinking, differential risk assessment, varied dialectical reasoning, individualized management strategies can disrupt situational awareness, decision making, coordination, and communication. Cultures, according to Fiske (2002) is neither black or white, but a rainbow of colors. Cultures are powerful but are often unconscious.

Cultural traits are the medium through which people interpret and adopt situations and environment. These traits may be used as cultural lens to filter and color the viewer’s response. Cultural lens captures cultural differences in reasoning, judgment and authority structure by providing a distinct lens to view the world as if through the eyes of the participants making coordination a possibility.

Cultural Lens is a metaphor of being able to put on special goggles that show the world as it appears to someone from a different cultural group. This lens provides common ground for undertaking coordinated actions. Even when members of different cultures receive the same stimuli, the interpretation may be different and so will the selection of different courses of action. This disparity is a barrier when coordinated actions are necessary across national groups. The cultural lens will facilitate effective decision making by helping to see the world of the allies, thereby, helping in collaboration and de centering.

Cultural lens model

Figure 1 shows the Cultural Lens Model . When people of different cultures interact mismatch in perception, beliefs and values are but natural. Every person belongs to multiple cultures that give messages about what is normal, appropriate and expected. When others do not meet the expectations, it is often a cue that the cultural expectations are different. What is common to one group may seem strange, counterintuitive or wrong to another. Cultural lens helps to identify the mismatch and make suitable adjustments. The Cultural Lens Model provides a framework for understanding the concept and origins of national culture and captures the dimensions that typify national group differences. The model assumes that members of a national group, growing up in similar ecological and social contexts, have shared experiences and hence have common behavioral and cognitive patterns.

Culture is like “mental programming” or the software of the mind. But, cultural relativism does not exist and hence cultural principles are not universally applicable. One culture has no criteria for judging another culture but can judge its own culture.

There are four dimensions of culture in the workplace that can be used as lenses to measure other cultures and thereby help in decision making:

• Power distance – ” Equal or unequal”
• Individualism and collectivism – “Alone or Together”
• Masculinity and femininity – ” Tough or Tender”
• Uncertainty avoidance – “Rigid or Flexible”

Power Distance

The degree of fear among employees to disagree with their managers, the amount of employee preference for management’s decision-making policies, and the degree of employee dependence on management is referred to as measurement of power distance. Geographic location, political climate, population size and the wealth of the country have a huge influence on power distance .In a high power distance culture, decision-making is autocratic. In low power distance cultures, decision-makers use participative style.

The Power Distance Index (PDI) is a cultural dimension that looks at how much a culture does or does not value hierarchical relationships and the amount of respect for authority. Hofstede’s Power distance Index measures inequality in power distribution and the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Below is a table illustrating the scores compiled by Professor Geert Hotstede with regards to the dimension named Power Distance Index for some countries

Name of Country Power Distance Index
Australia 36
Brazil 69
Canada 39
France 68
India 77
Japan 54
South Africa 49
United States 40


Source :

Form the above table it is apparent that India has the highest PDI and Australia the lowest.

In a high power distance cultures, authority is demonstrated and though subordinates are expected to take blame for things going wrong, are not given important work. They expect clear guidance from above. The boss and subordinates rarely come close or are personal. Class divisions within society are accepted and politics is a norm rather than an exception in an organization.

In contrast, in Low Power Distance culture, superiors respect subordinates and do not try to wield their authority over them. Subordinates are given important assignments and blame is either shared or the superior shoulders the blame. Managers often socialize with subordinates. Liberal democracies being the norm, societies are egalitarian. Hence, depending on the PDI of a nation the hierarchical frame can be understood which can become the basis for decision making.

Individualism and Collectivism

Collectivists tend to derive a sense of self from their role in the greater community. Individualists derive a sense of self from their own desires. There is however no negative correlation between individualists and collectivists. While individualism measures the strength of the bonds between individuals, collectivism measures the unquestioning loyalty of its members for this system builds cohesive groups. Individualism gives priority to personal life, freedom on the job and personal sense of accomplishment. Collectivism advocates training opportunities to employees, standards of physical working conditions and opportunities to use skills and abilities on the job. Individualistic decision-making tends to be justified for the manager and the organization. Collective decision-making is directly affected by a wide range of social implications. A culture is very rarely completely individualist or completely collectivist though Western cultures are more individualistic and the Asian cultures more collectivistic. While working in the ambit of these two cultures, the decision making styles have to be flexible to suit the operating requirements of that particular culture . What is considered to be good for a collectivist may not look so for the individualist and vice versa.

Masculinity and Femininity

Where the roles of gender are distinct with men being focused on material success and women deal with quality of life, the culture of masculinity exists. Whereas when the gender roles overlap and both genders deal with quality of life the culture of femininity . is prevalent. These are cultural, not biological categories. Feminine cultures tend to encourage group decision-making.
Masculinity is measured by:
• Opportunity for earnings and recognition
• Scope of career advancement and challenge
• Degree of gender role separation
Femininity is measured by:
• nature of working relationship
• degree of cooperation
• employment security
• gender roles overlap

Uncertainty Avoidance

A Society’s tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity is referred to an uncertainty avoidance. It refers to the extent a culture attunes its members to feel either comfortable or uncomfortable in unstructured situations. Uncertainty avoiding cultures like Germany are not too keen on uncertainty and plan everything to avoid uncertainty. Such cultures want to reduce risks to the minimum and proceed with changes step by step. There is a need for written and unwritten rules, predictability and minimal change. This type of society will have a system of rules and regulations that govern decision-making.

Hence it can be concluded that cultural preferences and strategic decisions are closely interlinked. The two potential decision making methods are renegade and rational. Renegade decision-making methods work outside organizational norms, rules and procedures to bring changes while the rational method works within the organizational norms, rules and procedures.

To be successful in decision making, it is necessary to wear cultural lens and adopt the appropriate style. Managers in individualistic, high power distant and uncertainty accepting societies are more likely to prefer renegade championing strategies than are managers in collective, low power-distant and uncertainty avoiding societies. Inorder to avoid poor decision within a business environment, the values that drive the culture of that environment should be understood. Expectations and assumptions that shape both the perception of a problem and the direction necessary to solve it are shaped by culture. Any creative decision-making process should not begin with “Define the problem” but instead define the operating assumptions. This “ready” stage in the “Ready, Aim, Fire” sequence of the decision making process is the most essential to put decisions on target.

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