Book Review: The 7 Mental Images of National Culture by Huib Wursten

Book Review: The 7 Mental Images of National Culture by Huib Wursten
The 7 Mental Images of National Culture
Genre: Management

EBook | 209 pp. | Hofstede Institute | | 1st Edition
Buy on Amazon
4.0 rating

The 7 Mental Images of National Culture is a book by Huib Wursten, an Associate Partner at Hofstede Insights. The name itself of Geert Hofstede brings immediately in mind his work on Cultural Dimensions that made him the central reference on understanding cultural differences for a multitude of students and professionals around the world. I first met this theory during my first year at University, and recall how I found it a bit too academic and sterile. I had the feeling that putting entire cultures in “boxes” would not simplify their understanding, but rather induce more stereotyping. 

I had to rethink this idea when I met first Huib Wursten. He did deliver some Intercultural Communication training in a Leadership Programme I had designed, and was very successful in making the work very “practical”. Instead of being pure stereotypes, Hofstede’s dimensions became a vivid tool to interpret other culture, respect diversity and be able to act in terms of communication.

This book goes one step forward. Based on the many years of experience of the author, it develops a framework that clusters countries by their position on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions reducing complexity and making the influence of culture visible and tangible. The combination of the dimensions yields a wealth of new insights that can be summarised in a ‘typology of national culture’ – the so-called Mental Images of culture. This typology enables managers to analyse the likely effects of management techniques and employment policies in different national contexts and can aid managers to modify or replace these techniques where they may be dysfunctional or counterproductive.

The need that most leaders and managers have is critical in this book. How do I adjust my leadership or management style when managing people from different cultures? Recent technology developments have not diminished the need to understand different cultures. On the contrary, this need is increased. Email, chats, instant messages, joint with the frenetic speed at which we want to get answers, have increased the risk of misunderstandings across the multiple instances of different cultures.

Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture

Hofstede defines culture as “Always a collective phenomenon because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment, which was learned.” Culture consists of the unwritten rules of the social game.

He had identified six dimensions of national culture:

  1. Power Distance (PDI) – which indicates to the extent to which less powerful members of a society accept that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV) – which indicates the level at which individuals look after themselves or their immediate families, or instead consider themselves a part of “larger groups”.
  3. Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS) – is not about gender, but rather about dominant values expressed: achievement, performance, status in masculine societies, cooperation, people-orientation and consensus for the feminine societies. 
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) – refers to the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and unpredictability and try to avoid these situations.
  5. Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation (LTO) – refers to the extent to which a society exhibits a future-oriented perspective rather than a near-term point of view.
  6. Indulgence versus Restraint (IVR) – refers to the level of relatively free gratification that some societies allow vs other where strict social norms regulate gratification.
Fig.1: Comparison of Levels for Hofstede Six Dimensions of National Culture for Italy, Switzerland and USA. Source: Hofstede Insights
Fig.1: Comparison of Levels for Hofstede Six Dimensions of National Culture for Italy, Switzerland and the USA. Source: Hofstede Insights

Culture for Italy, Switzerland and the USA. Source: Hofstede Insights

You can quickly review the level results for your own country directly online, as well as compare with other cultures. The problem is that having six dimensions means there are well over 600 pieces of information to remember to have a view articulated on the 160 countries for which the dimensions have been measured.

The 7 Mental Images of National Culture

Here comes the additional work done by Wursten and his team. By observing how the 6 dimensions intersected each other, they have identified The 7 Mental Images of National Culture that can help quickly associate most cultures in the world.

  • Contest (‘winner takes all’)
    Competitive cultures with a small Power Distance (PDI), high Individualism (IDV), high Masculinity (MAS), and fairly weak Uncertainty Avoidance. Examples include Australia, New Zealand, UK and US.
  • Network (consensus)
    Highly Individualist (IDV) and feminine cultures with a small Power Distance (PDI), where everyone is involved in the decision-making process. Examples are Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
  • Well-Oiled Machine (order)
    Individualistic societies with a small Power Distance (PDI) and strong Uncertainty Avoidance have carefully balanced procedures and rules, but not much hierarchy. Examples are Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary and German-speaking Switzerland.
  • Solar System (hierarchy and standardized job descriptions)
    This culture cluster is like the Pyramid, but more individualistic (IDV). Examples are Belgium, France, Northern Italy, Spain and French-speaking Switzerland.
  • Pyramid (loyalty, hierarchy and implicit order)
    Collectivist (low IDV) cultures with a large Power Distance (PDI) and strong Uncertainty Avoidance. Examples are Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Portugal, Arabian countries, Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand.
  • Family (loyalty and hierarchy)
    Collectivist (low IDV) cultures with a large Power Distance (PDI), where we can observe powerful in-groups and paternalistic leaders. Examples are China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore.
  • Japan as the Seventh Mental Image (dynamic equilibrium)
    Japan is the only country in this ‘cluster’ due to the unique combination of dimensions not found in any of the before mentioned Six Mental Images. Japan has a mid-Power Distance (PDI), a mid-Individualism (IDV), a very strong Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) and a high Masculinity (MAS) score.

Huib Wursten, The 7 Mental Images of National Culture, page 24

The book gives a detailed description of each of these Mental Images. It looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each culture, potential pitfalls as well as some detailed considerations about politics and economy. Reading these pages, I started realising how important it is to consider these Mental images when we look at the development of new Organisational Forms. For example, although many cases exist of experimentation in these fields, it is not by chance that concepts such as Agile or Beyond Budgeting are more easily applied in Scandinavian Cultures. The strong cultural emphasis on equality, just as an example, makes it easier to have less managerial levels, versus the US culture where instead Accountability is the keyword, and the stable organisational model seems to be more “fitting” with the culture

Impact on organisation and management

Chapter 4 investigates at length what is the impact of these Mental Images to companies. One of the most interesting considerations is as follows:

Thinking that you can transfer best practices from one culture to another culture blindly is naive. Thus, the next step is to be able to ‘translate’ these practices into the local value systems. Forcing people to do things against the basic values of their culture is counterproductive.

Huib Wursten, The 7 Mental Images of National Culture, page 79

Which explains why often a good idea in terms of intercultural collaboration (that of getting best practices across the network and applying them globally) can fail miserably. Wursten suggests using an approach that is of Inclusive Negotiation in most interactions, a concept derived from the ‘win-win’ idea of Roger Fisher and William Ury. The author creates several interesting tools that summarise several business issues, as well as some suggestions on bridging the gaps at the level of each Mental Image.

Once solutions are identified that integrate the different points of view, it is essential to anchor them, if possible by embedding them in the organisational culture of the organisation. 

Chapter 5 analyses the impact of the mental images in companies for Leaders and Managers. A well-documented section covers what it means being a Manager in each of the Mental Image. It also gives suggestions on some practical items, such as managing meetings or managing conflict. A fascinating section is on Giving Performance Feedback. By experience, it is the most complex activity for a manager with a multicultural team!

Chapter 6 looks at Change management and Recruitment. It is interesting the note that Rolling out is the most naive concept in international management. Especially if you add the cultural dimension, the idea itself of Change Management becomes new. 

Huib Wursten has developed Mental Image comparison across 28 different topics, which becomes a useful guide to lead and manage across different cultures.

Conclusion

A book like this always raises the question of how it is going to be used. The author is crystal clear that he does not want to translate these Mental Images into Stereotypes, and abundant words are spent on the avoidance of bias. However, I think it is important to stress it once more: as with any model, these are meant to help describe facts that happen, but then need to be intelligently applied to reality. 

A book like this always raises the question of how it is going to be used. The author is crystal clear that he does not want to translate these Mental Images into Stereotypes, and abundant words are spent on the avoidance of bias. However, I think it is important to stress it once more: as with any model, these are meant to help describe facts that happen, but then need to be intelligently applied to reality. 

With this important caveat in mind, I think this book builds a robust framework to be able to manage cultural differences in management, but also when we plan, for example, an organisation design project. Way too often I heard people stating that just because there are so many differences, trying to bridge the intercultural gap is “useless”. 

The 7 Mental Images of National Culture gives the tools to start bridging the critical gaps among cultures in organisations and organisations, starting by establishing the recognition that we are different and act differently.

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The 7 Mental Images of National Culture
Genre: Management | Rating: 4/5
By Huib Wursten
EBook | 209 pp. | Hofstede Institute | 23/10/2019 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9781687633347
Buy on Amazon

The 7 Mental Images of National Culture by Huib Wursten Goodreads Reviews

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