Trompenaars’ Cultural Dimensions

Trompenaars’ cultural dimensions comprise a framework for cross-cultural communication in the workplace. 

Understanding Trompenaars’ cultural dimensions

Trompenaars’ cultural dimensions for cross-cultural workplace communication were developed by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. To develop their model, the pair spent more than a decade researching the cultural values and preferences of more than 46,000 managers across 40 countries.

The results of the research were then published in a 1998 book entitled Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found that managers from various cultures differed in specific and sometimes predictable ways since each culture had its own system of thinking, beliefs, and values.

These systems were then represented on seven cultural dimensions that comprise the framework itself. Each dimension guides employees and managers to help them understand different cultural backgrounds, improve working relationships, and avoid instances of cultural faux pas. 

In the following sections, we will take a look at each dimension in more detail.

The seven cultural dimensions

1 – Universalism versus particularism: 

  • Universalism – cultures that consider laws, rules, and obligations to be more important than relationships. Universalism espouses clear instructions and procedures, consistency, and objective decision-making. Examples include the US, UK, and Australia.
  • Particularism – these cultures believe relationships dictate the rules by which they live and that each situation may require a different response. As a result, they favor autonomy, flexibility, and relationship-building. Examples include Russia and China.

2 – Individualism versus communitarianism

  • Individualism – where freedom and personal achievement are celebrated and rewarded and linked to the needs of others or the organization as a whole. Employees are autonomous, creative, and allowed to make mistakes. This is commonly seen in Australia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, and the US and UK.
  • Communitarianism – a belief that the group is more important than the individual, providing safety and assistance in exchange for loyalty. Individuals are not praised publicly and no favoritism is displayed. Examples include Japan and many Latin American countries.

3 – Specific versus diffuse

  • Specific – these employees keep their personal and professional lives separate and believe that colleagues can work together without necessarily liking each other. This dimension is common in the West.
  • Diffuse – where employees see overlap between their personal and professional life. Countries such as Russia, India, and Spain consider good personal relationships key to meeting organizational objectives.

4 – Neutral versus affective

  • Neutral – employees suppress their emotions and tend not to reveal what they are thinking or feeling. There is a tendency to “stick to the point” during interactions.
  • Emotional – this describes employees who are more than willing to express emotions at work in a spontaneous manner. Emotions, they believe, build trust and rapport and can also be used to manage conflict before it escalates.

5 – Achievement versus ascription

  • Achievement – these are cultures that value and reward performance irrespective of rank or seniority. A person’s worth is directly correlated with what they do and titles are used only when relevant.
  • Ascription – these are cultures that value an employee based on power, position, or title. Those with authority are shown the utmost respect and are never up-staged. Ascription is common in France, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.

6 – Sequential time versus synchronous time

  • Sequential time – employees who value sequential time prefer events to occur in a logical order and consider planning, commitment, and punctuality to be of supreme importance. This describes the classic “time is money” culture that is prevalent in the USA, UK, and Germany, among others.
  • Synchronous time – here, employees consider the past, present, and future to be intertwined. They are happy to work on multiple projects simultaneously and do not see plans as rigid or unchangeable. Examples include Mexico and Argentina.

7 – Internal direction versus external direction

  • Internal direction – those with internal direction believe they have control over their environment and how they work with other individuals and teams. By extension, they allow others to develop and take control of their own environment. Conflict is handled openly and constructively.
  • External direction – those with external direction believe their environment controls them. Their actions revolve around conflict avoidance or minimization. This is done by providing direction, regular feedback, and constant reassurance. When it does occur, conflict tends to be managed quietly and efficiently.

Key takeaways:

  • Trompenaars’ cultural dimensions for cross-cultural workplace communication were developed by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. The pair surveyed over 46,000 managers in 40 countries to create a framework of how different cultures interact in the workplace.
  • Trompenaars’ cultural dimensions help organizations foster better relationships between employees with different cultural backgrounds. Knowledge of the various dimensions helps individuals avoid making a cultural faux pas. 
  • Trompenaars’ seven cultural dimensions are universalism versus particularism, individualism versus communitarianism, specific versus diffuse, neutral versus affective, achievement versus ascription, sequential time versus synchronous time, and internal direction versus external direction. Collectively, the dimensions address factors such as work style, leadership style, time management, autonomy, performance, decision-making, and the importance of rules and regulations.
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