You’re a multinational conglomerate. You own railways, IT firms, manufacturing companies, and more. Do you have a single organisational culture? Is it even possible?

You’re a single-industry manufacturer. You have an HR department, a Finance department, and assembly line production facilities. Do they all have the same culture? Should they? Can they?

We know that healthy organisational culture plays a major role in performance. But does healthy cultural health require cultural uniformity across national or regional or even functional lines?

Cultural Health vs. Cultural Uniformity

This question comes up in Europe quite a lot when we are called in to help with organisational culture.  Whether we’re assessing the culture of a corporation with hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide or a smaller entity with offices in different countries or regions, it’s important to understand that the results of a culture survey provide a snapshot at a very high level. Though your scores for various traits may be consistently strong across the organisation, this does not imply that you have—or should have—a uniform culture across the organisation.

Would you expect the people building railways to have the same culture as people developing IT solutions or manufacturing consumer products? Would you expect your HR department to have the same culture as the line workers in your plant? Would you want them to?

National and Regional Differences in Organisational Culture

Beyond questions of differences among functional areas, more and more the discussion centers around the role that national culture plays in organisational culture. Let’s look at some practical examples.

  • Take the question, “What does it mean to start a meeting on time?” The answer in the U.S., which tends to be schedule oriented, differs widely from the answer in China or Africa, where time and schedules are more fluid.
  • Or take the question, “Did you meet your sales quota?” In Germany, you typically get a direct “Yes” or “No,” without elaboration. In the U.S., you may get a direct answer, but with explanations for why or why not. In France, the answer might start with a 5-minute report on the weather!
  • Ask a German and an Italian to describe teamwork, and you will probably get very different answers. German teams tend to be characterized by clear hierarchical structure, emotional reserve, and expressions of respect for leaders. In Italy, a team often is highly social, with members who are emotionally expressive and interactive relationally. They actually touch each other!

Though the results of your Denison Organisational Culture Survey (DOCS) may indicate strong team orientation across an organisation, the way that teamwork manifests in subgroups (national, functional, etc.) may be very different.

What is the Glue of Multinational Organisational Culture?

So, what can unite an organisational culture across departments or geography? At the high level, your organisation’s values may be the glue which keeps everybody together, though the expression of those values may be different in different subcultures.

For example, Customer Focus should be a value consistently lived out across your organisation, regardless of the geographic location. Uniform business goals and objectives are also crucial. Honesty should be a value expected of everyone (though even here, important cultural differences come into play).

The trick, then, is to tease out what role national (or functional) culture plays in expressing your values, and preparing leaders and other employees to navigate their different expression, both verbal and behavioral, in different environments. This takes investment, because you need to plan and train your employees accordingly.

For example, just because someone is talented and successful in your Paris office does not mean they can hit the ground running on a project in Köln. Even regional differences within some nations can be significant. A New Yorker sent to work in Atlanta or San Francisco may have to adapt culturally. It may be better to send someone for a month long “trial run” (with their partner or spouse, if applicable) to see if they successfully navigate the cultural differences than it is so send them for six months or more of frustration and low productivity in a cultural setting they don’t navigate well.

Organisational Culture: Values above Uniformity

A healthy organisational culture can be reflected in culturally diverse ways. The goal is utility in the service of your goals and values, not uniformity in how the values are expressed or the goals are achieved.

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