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Fons Trompenaars: Cultural Differences

It is a truism that we live in a global culture. But it is not in fact quite true: we live in a highly connected set of cultures and making political and business interactions work across the divides between them is far from easy. Fons Trompenaars is the foremost thinker in how businesses can understand and manage these differences pragmatically.

Fons Trompenaars

Very Short Biography

Fons Trompenaars was born in 1953, with a Dutch father and French mother. He grew up in the Netherlands and earned a Master’s degree in Business Economics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 1979. He then moved to the US, to continue his education at Wharton, gaining a PhD in 1983.

Working for Royal Dutch Shell, Trompenaars gained experience of many business cultures, being posted to nine countries in less than that number of years. He also met long-term collaborator and business partner, the British academic, Charles Hampden-Turner. In 1989, the two of them founded a consulting business, then called the Centre for International Business Studies. It has subsequently been acquired by international professional services firm KPMG, and renamed Trompenaars Hampden-Turner (THT) Consulting.

In 1997, the two wrote their hugely influential book, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, which set out their model for understanding cultural differences.

Accolades, awards and academic positions have followed for Trompenaars, as have several other books that build upon his ideas and spread them outwards, but Riding the Waves of Culture remains his pre-eminent work and very much a modern business classic that no manager who works in an international context can afford to be ignorant of.

Riding the Waves of Culture

The essential thesis at the heart of Trompenaars’ thinking is that the challenge of leadership is to resolve choices – dilemmas – in the context of different cultural pressures. People from all cultures face much the same dilemmas, but their cultural backgrounds influence the way they will choose to address those dilemmas. Leaders need to reconcile those differences to create effective change and to manage efficiently.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner created a powerful model for understanding cultural differences. Superficially their model resembles that of Geert Hofstede, another Dutchman. However, while Hofstede focuses on the underlying psychology that drives differences, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner are more practical in their approach, aiming to create a tool that managers can use to work with the differences. Both approaches are, however, informed by meticulous research.

Riding the Waves defines culture as the rules and approaches a coherent society adopts, to resolve the issues it faces. These become ingrained in its population and therefore second nature, at which point an external observer recognises them as culture. Consequently, we need to understand the rules and approaches we take and those that the people we deal with accept, and therefore we need to recognise and adapt ourselves to the differences. Failure to recognise and adapt to cultural differences leads to a breakdown in communication and trust.

The model that Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner created sets out seven continua that they represent as pairs of opposite attitudes. Each culture occupies a unique position on each of these continua, creating a very rich array of possibilities. Even were there only 5 positions on each scale, this would yield 78,000 possible cultures, rising to 824,000 with a seven-point scale. Let’s look at the seven continua.

Universalism – Particularism

Universalist cultures value and apply rigorous standards and like to enforce rules. Particularist societies prefer the flexibility of adapting the rules to the circumstances, valuing people over set rules and therefore embracing exceptions.

Individualism – Collectivism (or Communitarianism)

This is about how a society values the group. Collectivist cultures place care for the group and the need for consensus above the needs of the individuals within it. Individualist cultures value autonomy and the creative opportunities they believe it offers.

Neutral – Affective (or Emotional)

The extent to which people within a culture display their emotions (Affective) or keep them hidden (Neutral). In Neutral cultures, reason plays a far more overt role in decision-making.

Specific – Diffuse

A subtle concept about the way we relate to one another. In Specific cultures relationships form around the sharing of specific resources or objectives, whereas in Diffuse cultures, the sharing is far more widespread, creating more holistic relationships.

Achievement – Ascription

This dimension represents the way society evaluates our status. Achievement-oriented cultures are more meritocratic and allocate status according to performance, whilst Ascription-oriented cultures pay greater attention to background, education, and connections.

Sequential – Synchronic

Unlike those above, this dimension is not about social attitudes, but in this case attitudes to time. Sequential cultures tend to be more orderly and value planning more than Synchronic cultures, which take a flexible view of time, with greater spontaneity and less orderly use of time.

Internal – External

This continuum is also not about social relationships, but the expectations about whether we as a society can either control nature (Internal) or are subject to it (External).  The labels refer to the source of control for our society – either internal, within society or external, from the environment.

Where Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner create a powerful resource for managers is in articulating, for each of the 14 polarities, a series of strategies that allow us to adapt to a culture that shows each of these 14 characteristics. This is vital, because your own cultural preferences will be different from those of people of another country or even region within your own country.

In addition, their research also rated many countries on each of the scales, allowing readers to understand the cultural preferences of the people they are dealing with. Many of their findings match recognisable cultural stereotypes, but many do not. If you want to figure out why a British business person with a strong preference for rules and an orderly approach to time, but a mixed attitude to merit versus background can best do business with their counterpart in Latin America, with a fluid approach to rules, a highly emotional response to pressure, and an ambiguous relationship with time, Riding the Waves of Culture is the book for you.


A Pocketbook to help you with managing across cultural differences

You may enjoy the Cross-cultural Business Pocketbook

Fons Trompenaars at TEDx Amsterdam, 2013

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Amy Cuddy: Power Poses

Amy Cuddy is best known for her research on how non-verbal behaviours assert power…

I’ll start again: Amy Cuddy is best known for her remarkable 2012 TED talk, ‘Your body language shapes who you are’, which has become the second most watched TED talk, with over 26 million views to date. You can watch it and add to that number at the foot of this blog. And you should.

Amy Cuddy


Short Biography

Amy Cuddy was born in 1972 and grew up a small Pennsylvania town. As a result of a car accident during her undergraduate years, she suffered a serious head injury that doctors asserted would compromise her academic ability. Nonetheless, she graduated from the University of Colorado in Social Psychology (1998) and then went on to earn her MA and PhD (2005) in the same subject, at Princeton.

Cuddy took a role as an Assistant Professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, teaching leadership to MBA students. She moved to become Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, and then, in 2008, to Harvard Business School as Associate Professor, where she teaches MBA courses and executive education programmes, specialising in negotiation, body language, power and influence.

Cuddy’s Research

Amy Cuddy’s research interests have yielded nuggets of valuable knowledge for managers. Her most famous and impactful for many is the concept of the Power Pose, developed with Dana Carny and Andy Yap. But I will leave her to describe that far better than I ever could, in her TED talk below. Instead, I will focus on her research (with Susan Fiske and Peter Glick) on how we judge one another.

How we judge people

Cuddy’s research indicates that our judgements of people can determine how we will interact with them. This can affect our emotions, intentions and behaviours in hiring, promoting, electing, taking risks, giving to charity, and even persecution and genocide. Two trait dimensions are particularly salient in our judgements: warmth-trustworthiness and competence-power. This leads to stereotyping of racial groups, leading onwards to discrimination and persecution.

The first and most important judgement we make about someone we meet is their warmth: it is an attempt to assess ‘friend or foe?’ Then we try to assess their competence – ‘if they are a foe, how much care do I need to take?’.

Interestingly, competence in one arena leads us to infer a wider competence, whilst incompetence in one arena does not lead us to generalize in the same way. But it is different for warmth: one example of coldness creates an impression that this is our true character. This is how Cuddy describes it in one interview (with The Harvard Magazine):

‘You can purposely present yourself as warm—you can control that, but we feel that competence can’t be faked. So positive competence is seen as more diagnostic. On the other hand, being a jerk—well, we’re not very forgiving of people who act that way.’

Another generalization we make is pervasive and dangerous: we generalize our experiences across a whole social or racial group: gender, ethnicity, age, or nationality.

We also create another dangerous generalization: that warmth means not-competent and competent means not-warm. Too much of one trait leads us to suspect a shortage of the other. Hence the title of her much re-printed 2009 Harvard Business Review article, ‘Just Because I’m Nice, Don’t Assume I’m Dumb’.

Regular readers will know that I am a sucker for models and they don’t get simpler than four boxes. Here is one that flows from this, developed by Cuddy, Fiske and Glick.

Warmth-Competence Cuddy, Fiske, Glick

As soon as you look at this chart, you can see how the people and groups seen as cold are also the ones whom societies persecute – particularly when they are under pressure – either as ‘soft targets’ or as a ‘danger to society’.

Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Amy Cuddy’s 26million+ TED talk that introduced the world to power posing.

[ted id=1569]

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Michelle Howard: Not a Wimp

Admiral Michelle Harris is the first woman and the first African American to be promoted to a four star role in the US Navy, and the first African American woman both to command a ship, and later, to reach three-stars. She was recently appointed to be the US Navy’s vice chief of operations – its second-highest-ranking officer. She was also the  officer who masterminded the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates – later dramatised in the Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips.

Admiral Michelle Howard

Short Biography

Michelle Howard was born in 1960 to an American father and British mother. Her father was a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force. She graduated from the US Naval academy and then earned a master’s degree in military arts and sciences in 1998 from the Army’s Command and General Staff College. When she took command of the U.S.S. Rushmore in 1999, she became the first African-American woman to command a ship in the US Navy.

Howard was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) – equivalent to Commodore in the UK’s Royal Navy – in 2007 and to rear admiral, in 2010. She was promoted to vice admiral in 2012, and then, on 1 July 2014, she was promoted to four-star admiral with President Obama’s nomination (since unanimously confirmed by the Senate) to become the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Leadership Thinking

From her earliest days as a junior officer, Howard was recognised as an outstanding leader. On only her second posting, aboard USS Lexington, she received the Secretary of the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award for the one woman officer a year showing the most outstanding leadership.

But it has not always been easy. Howard said in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1999 that, in the course of her career, she encountered ‘individuals who didn’t want me at the command, or didn’t want me in a particular position.’ 

Speaking about the obstacles she has faced as an African American woman, she said in a 2010 talk about women and minorities in the Navy: ‘This is not for wimps.  You have to keep a sense of humor. You have to develop stamina because there’s going to be tough days. Like the pioneering women of old, you have to let some things go.’

But, for this blog, the most valuable interview is the one that she recently gave to Forbes Magazine, which you can read in full, and watch  extracts below.

The five leadership lessons that Howard offers are powerful indeed, not least because of the authority and careful consideration she brings to them.

  1. If you want to innovate, first take a hard look at yourself–and be flexible about making changes.
  2. Create space for creativity–you never know what could result.
  3. A morning routine can boost observation, not just efficiency.  (my own personal favourite)
  4. An appreciation for the lessons of the past will help you better craft the future.
  5. Create an environment where employees can meet personal goals and they’ll strive that much harder for the professional ones, too.

I shall not give more detail, because you can readily read it on the Forbes website. Please do.



You might also enjoy the Leadership Pocketbook and the Diversity Pocketbook.






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Japanese Management Lingo

In last week’s Pocketblog, we looked at the 5S approach to ordering and organising a workspace, introducing five Japanese words: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke.

It struck me that there are an awful lot of Japanese terms that have enriched our business language, so I thought I’d list a few more.  Of course, readers of the Pocketblog will also probably be familiar with gemba too.

I think that some of the concepts that they raise are absolutely fascinating – and necessary to us in the West.  Let’s look at a few more, some familiar, some little known.


Collaboration and information sharing.  Keeping others informed.


Radical change.  The opposite of…


Continuous flow of incremental improvements.


A progress tracking approach that follows instances through a process.  Literally ‘billboard’.  Increasingly used in project management and team workflow.  There is a lovely (free) web-based app called Trello that works on Mac, PC and mobile app formats.


Literally: ‘death from overwork’.  Don’t!


The spirit of co-operating for the common good.


Perception and foresight, coupled with good judgement.


The sense of regret when we become aware of waste and failure to use well any things of value.  (I am so glad I now have a word for this).  It comes from the concept, ‘mottai’ that things have inherent value, or dignity.  Nice.

Muda, Mura and Muri

… are the three forms of waste

  • Muda
    Wasted effort
  • Mura
  • Muri
    Unreasonable – even ridiculous – requirements


Literally, ‘going around the roots’.  Refers to the informal stakeholder alignment and political process that lay the groundwork for effective consensus or change.

Pecha Kucha

Currently popular style of presenting, with 20 slides, each lasting 20 seconds.  Gives a fast and dynamic way to present an idea.  Pecha Kucha nights often consist of a dozen or more presentations.  Literally, ‘chit-chat’.

Poka Yoke

Making error proof.  Creating something so that mistakes cannot be made.


Public truth.  The things that are appropriate to share in a public situation.  It literally means ‘facade’ and we might contrast it with ‘honne’, meaning your true feelings.  Puts me in mind of the Johari Window.

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Valuing Diversity

Peter_Honey.pngPeter Honey wrote a thought-provoking blog on the Training Journal website, where he opened by taking as read that valuing diversity is a good thing (my italics), but then he asked a really good question:



‘If we were going to start doing it at 0900 tomorrow morning, what exactly would we do?’

As usual, Peter gives a very good answer to his own question, but, also typical of him, his question really made me think.

But that was a couple of weeks ago…

The first equal opportunities employer?

The topic came back to me last night (Saturday 7 May) when I was watching a documentary about the Untold story of the Battle of Trafalgar.  It looked at the foreign sailors who fought on one of Nelson’s ships of the line, HMS Bellerophon and made the point that, for the few years of the war with Napoleon, the British Navy treated its black sailors better than Europeans had ever treated black people, and better than they were to do so for many years: it gave them total equality of opportunity.

Black and other foreign sailors were treated exactly the same as all others and promoted and respected strictly according to merit.  Perhaps that is the answer to Peter’s question.

After the war, however, it was back to colonialist business as usual, as the black sailors, who were no longer needed, were abandoned to the streets.  You can watch the video here.

Diversity Works

I have no special expertise in the subject of diversity, just the simplistic view that evidence shows that diverse teams get better results.  That’s why Peter’s question so impressed me.  So I thought it was time to read the Diversity Pocketbook.

What I found was a nice little model that can apply to many different change projects.  The author, Linbert Spencer, may forgive me for turning it into a simple picture.


How strong is it, really?

What do you mean by ‘diversity’?

A formal commitment from all the people who have real authority.

This is not an easy process.  You need to be in it for the long haul.

When you make progress, celebrate, but keep up your commitment

So Here’s the Deal

Linbert Spencer offers a structured process to answer Peter Honey’s question.  He also gives lots of practical tips to supplement Peter’s eminently sound advice.  This does matter, because in tough times like these, you can’t afford to waste any opportunity to get the best team and to get the best from your team.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

The Diversity Pocketbook

The Cross-cultural Business Pocketbook

The Empowerment Pocketbook

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After Generation Y?

Have you ever noticed that things seem to cluster in your life?  There seems to be a ‘time’ for certain things: one minute they are in the deep background, and the next, they emerge and keep assailing your senses.

So it has been these last few weeks for me.  Nearly a month ago, I attended an interesting talk and wrote a blog about Generation X and Generation Y, and then found out about a unified theory of all of history, based on generations.

I returned to that theme a week later, to speculate how Generation Y (born between 1980 and 2000) would behave as managers in the workplace.  But the theme could not leave me alone.

What comes after Generation Y

Continue reading After Generation Y?

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Maslow on Steroids


One of the best known, most widely used, and least researched models that managers are introduced to is ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’.

Maslow argued that our motivations and values change as our needs change.  Once a need is fulfilled, we turn our focus onto the next one, in a hierarchy from physiological needs for survival and shelter, up to higher needs that, arguably, drive those of us who have everything we ‘need’.

You can read all about Maslow’s Hierarchy in The Motivation Pocketbook.

Clare W Graves

Clare Graves was a student and near contemporary of Maslow, who wanted to produce a better model.  In doing so, he focused on different views of self actualisation and categorised a whole hierarchy of value systems.

His model, now formalised as ‘Spiral Dynamics’ sets out a series of value sets that mark out increasingly mature world views.  It takes Maslow’s model to a higher level of complexity.

Spiral Dynamics

These world views can be interpreted as personal value sets, or as group cultures.  They represent the different ways different people think about issues.  As we as individuals, organisations and societies progress up the spiral, we are coming to grips with more complex and sophisticated ways of seeing the world.

The Levels of Spiral Dynamics

In simple terms, the levels of the spiral are:

  • Beige: Need for personal survival – focus on the present
  • Purple: Need for group and family security
  • Red: Need for personal power and control
  • Blue: Need for stability, order and conformity
  • Orange: Need for autonomy and success – a capitalist paradigm
  • Green: Need for harmony, community and social cohesion
  • Yellow: Need for independence and personal responsibility
  • Turquoise: Need for global community and global survival


The usual thing

Whilst Graves originated the thinking behind the model, it was formalised and given the name ‘Spiral Dynamics’ in the 1996 book Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change by Don Beck and Chris Cowan.  As is often the way (for example, with Situational Leadership), the authors have developed the model in slightly different ways.  You can read about their interpretations at:
… the website of Chris Cowan’s NVC Consulting, and
… the website of Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics Integral

So here’s the deal

Models are useful if they explain or predict aspects of the world.  Spiral Dynamics – in either interpretation – offers a way to understand people’s responses to situations and also the cultures of organisations and societies.  Culture clashes emerge when sub-groups are forced together, that have value sets at different levels in the spiral.

Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

The Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook

The Working Relationships Pocketbook

The Workplace Politics Pocketbook

The Cross-cultural Business Pocketbook

The Diversity Pocketbook

The Managing Change Pocketbook

The Management Models Pocketbook

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What is Empathy?

Lots of Pocketbooks use the word ‘empathy’.  The problem is that scientists still find it hard to properly characterise.  New Scientist magazine ran a fascinating feature article on 13 March 2010 called ’Empathy Overkill’.  In this article they studied what we can learn when our empathy systems go into overdrive.  There are some people who suffer from forms of extreme empathy, such as:

    unconsciously echoing other people actions
    …..– even inappropriate ones

    feeling the physical sensations they
    …..observe in others

Mirror Neurons

MirrorNeuronsEmpathy appears to be due to some specialised brain cells called mirror neurons that are at the top of our brains.  They activate in the same way, whether we do something or we see someone else do it.  They let us ‘try out’ other people’s movements and gestures.

It seems that some people’s mirror neurons are not inhibited enough, causing them to literally live-out the actions or sensations they observe.

Empathy and Compassion

As well as the medical implications of extreme empathy, scientists are also looking at the link between empathic responses and compassion.  Evidence suggests that an inability physically identify with other people’s pain does correlate with high self-assessed levels of ‘cold-heartedness’.

So, it is your mirror neurons that let you know how other people are feeling.  When a colleague walks into work tomorrow, they will help you know whether that colleague is feeling good or bad.

Sustainable Competitive Advantage

John Mattock is passionate about the value of cross cultural empathy in business.  If you want to work with business people in another culture, being sensitive to their cultural norms and making the effort to understand them will bring you sustainable competitive advantage.  The Cross-Cultural Business Pocketbook is chock-full of great tips to build up your understanding and for how to communicate effectively across cultures.  A series of two-page mini guides to a handful of cultures on their own make this an insightful and valuable book.


So here’s the deal

If you want to read other people’s minds, let your mirror neurons tell you what’s going on.  What you choose to do with that information is up to you. If you work with people from other cultures, then your empathy skills may be stretched to their limits, but if you prime them well and are sympathetic to the emotions your mirror neurons detect, then you may just get better results for your efforts.

Other Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

If you have come across from our sister site, the Teachers’ Pocketbooks Blog, or are interested in empathy in the classroom, you may like this short post.

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