UNDERSTANDING CULTURAL DIMENSIONS
By Asma Abdullah Ph.D, ( extracted from Culture Matters, by Asma Abdullah and Koh Soo Ling, 2009 )
Many of us take our culture for granted. The way we perceive and behave with others is a result of what we have learned either consciously or unconsciously when we are growing up in a particular environment. Culture is therefore learned or “caught” but not often taught. Rarely, do we get to attend organised classes to know our own cultural values and how they influence the way we think, perceive and view ourselves and others.
Every culture has developed its own set of basic assumptions to form the basis of thinking, feelings and actions among its members. These assumptions can be measured by a number of cultural dimensions which are in the form of a continuum based on man’s relationship with nature, environment, people and God.
In Malaysia, many of the ethnic groups have their own distinct cultures which distinguish them from the others. Whether they are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sikh, Iban, Kadazan, Melanau and others, each group has its own unique customs and practices based on their sets of values which have been internalised by members as part of their social and cultural programming.
This article will elaborate on the 8 cultural dimensions which have often been associated with Malaysians. They form our lens or mental models that we use in evaluating and relating with the world around us, people and God. They describe our internalized beliefs at the unconscious level which determine the boundaries of what we consider to be behaviors which are appropriate and the decisions we take in life. These dimensions illustrate the shared values, defined as the shoulds, oughts and musts that we have internalised as members of our Malaysian culture.
These dimensions, which include harmony, relationship, hierarchy, shame, high context, polychronic, collectivism and religion are highlighted in our daily conversations and are often present in our day-to-day behaviors.
Below is a brief description of each cultural dimension:
The focus on harmony would mean that agreement is more important than disagreement. While security and stability are assured, people will be less likely to challenge existing boundaries, paradigms and way of doing things as any expression of way out ideas can be seen as deviant behavior. It may militate against innovation and change and this is a major drawback to creative thinking. Therefore what is recommended is to design a climate which is conducive for Malaysians to take charge and be willing to initiate new ideas and plans which are initially discomforting but they have to be heard, discussed and nurtured over time.
While relationships are essential in building trust and rapport, too much emphasis on them can lead to favoritism, cronyism and nepotism. It can hinder efforts to be objective. To preserve relationships conflict is downplayed and members will remain silent when in difficult situations. Therefore the challenge is to instill in Malaysians a desire to make the task “the boss” while maintaining relationships as well. Acquiring a set of cognitive competencies like problem solving and critical thinking skills has to have a higher priority over socially related ones.
Perhaps the dimension that we need to take cognizant of is our focus on hierarchy as it may be seen as an obstacle in creating a competitive working environment. When subordinates are expected to show deference towards their senior elders, they will follow the instructions made for them without any questions. This can be at odds with a more participative and egalitarian work climate leading to a relationship of dependency where those younger in age are expected to be order takers. To redress this inequality, it would be advisable for them to encourage and coach the young to articulate their ideas, views and suggestions with confidence and respect for the wisdom of their wise elders.
Because of a high context form of communication approach there is a tendency for members to be guarded in stating their views and opinions for fear of being labeled as rude and outspoken. People are less direct and are not willing to express their true feelings – one will never know what the other person is thinking and not saying. In acknowledging the role of feedback in managing performance, those senior in age and experience have to create the right climate to ensure that their subordinates will be willing to share information which may not be palatable.
Being group oriented, Malaysians have a tendency to go along with the views of the majority. This pressure to conform can cause members to downplay their own unique abilities and be less vocal in expressing ideas which are different from the rest of the group. So, the challenge will be to provide an environment where Malaysians are given support and encouragement to be seen as unique, robust and independent individuals who can also achieve targets for the good of the group.
A concern for shame of “what others may say if we make mistakes” can also deter Malaysians from making the first move as well as be afraid to state the truth. The concern for saving, giving, getting, showing, and losing face can make them be reluctant to try something on their own for fear that they may not be successful. While this orientation makes them be conscious of making mistakes they also need to develop their own inner conscience and be accountable for their own actions.
The tendency to look at time as polychronic and flexible may be irritating to those who are more monochronic and specific. As the global workplace becomes more demanding in terms of time and meeting deadlines, Malaysians have to recognise that not being punctual, showing no sense of urgency and causing unnecessary delays can cause problems for others. They have to avoid doing things at a last minute, be focused when a task is assigned to them and regard time as a valuable, scarce and finite resource which has to be saved and measured.
A religious orientation is vital as it gives Malaysians a strong anchor and a sense of community building among those from the same faith. It promotes good behaviour and peace among its adherents. Managers, both local and foreign are expected to understand the teachings associated with the many religions observed by Malaysians of all ethnic groups. They have to make an effort to observe the religious and cultural sensitivities and understand the rituals of all religions which are not often explicitly articulated if they want to create a harmonious work environment.
In studying a particular culture we have to go beyond symbols and examine the hidden dimensions of values and cultural assumptions. Once we know what these are, we will be in a better position to understand why people behave the way they do.
In addition, a deeper understanding of values, norms and beliefs of a group of people can help us predict their way of thinking, feeling, and acting. These have to be understood as efforts to bring about behavioral changes of members in a particular culture have to take into consideration the base, the anchors and the past from which they have come from. Only then can change take place with the least amount of resistance.
To conclude, our thoughts are embedded in our cultural assumptions. Each culture will therefore have a different set of dimensions to determine the values of its members. An understanding of these underlying and hidden dimensions of culture is a starting point for learning more about how members of a particular culture have been culturally programmed. The 8 key cultural dimensions and the values and beliefs of all the ethnic groups in the country can go a long way to enhance intercultural understanding at the Malaysian workplace.
However, in reviewing these eight dimensions, Malaysians have to recognise that their impact when carried to the extreme can bring about consequences which are not always supportive of a productive work culture. The need to be cautious of both positive and negative consequences of these dimensions especially at the workplace can help decide what to preserve, nurture and discard.