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The 7 most common cultural differences in the workplace

Published on 25-07-2019

Due to globalization and the internet, more and more international teams are being formed within scale-ups, companies and even start-ups. That's fantastic, of course, but what about the cultural differences in the workplace and the associated misunderstandings that can be encountered?

Using Trompenaars' model of national cultural differences, you can learn to recognize the seven most common cultural differences that can occur in an international workplace. We also briefly describe what you should do when working in one of these cultural dimensions.

The model by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner consists of seven dimensions. Each dimension contains two opposites:

  • Universalism vs. particularism
  • Individualism vs. Communitarianism
  • Neutral vs. emotional
  • Specific vs. Diffuse
  • Performance vs. Attribution
  • Sequential vs. synchronous
  • Internal vs. external control

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1. Universalism vs. Particularism: Rules vs. Relationships

This dimension deals with the following question: “which things are more important, rules or relationships”.


In universalistic cultures, laws, rules, values, and obligations take precedence over relationships. People try to be fair to each other, but rules are rules.

When working in a universalist culture, you need to make sure that the values ​​of the employees are aligned with those of the company and that there are clear agreements and processes in place. Always make objective decisions and, if necessary, explain what they are based on.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: the Netherlands, USA, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Great Britain and Germany.


In particular cultures it is assumed that the rules can vary depending on the situation and relationship. So, someone's reaction can vary greatly depending on the situation and person.

It is therefore extremely important to build good relationships with the people around you if you want to get something done, if you work in or with such cultures. Also be flexible with agreements so as not to get annoyed if things go differently than planned.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Russia, South America and China.

2. Individualism vs. Communitarianism: Individual vs. the Group


In an individualistic culture, people see themselves primarily as individuals. They believe that everyone makes their own decisions and is responsible for themselves and their own performance.

When you are a manager, make sure that your employees have the confidence and freedom to make their own decisions and allow them to be creative and learn from their mistakes.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: USA, Israel, Canada, Great Britain, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland.


Communitarianism is understood to mean people who primarily see themselves as part of a group. The group offers security and support. In return, the group always comes before the individual and an individual must always be loyal to the group.

As a manager, you have to praise good group performance and strictly avoid giving preference to one person. In addition, employees can involve others in their projects.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Latin America, Mexico, India, Africa and Japan.

3. Neutral vs. emotional

This dimension is about whether people strictly control their emotions or whether they are allowed to express them.


People in the neutral dimension act primarily out of reason and logic and are guided to a lesser extent by their feelings. They don't easily show what they're thinking or feeling.

In short, manage your emotions effectively in a neutral culture and try to avoid emotional outbursts. Pay close attention to people's reactions because it will be harder to see what they are feeling. Even within this cultural area, direct communication is of great importance, as in the not-too-extensive elaboration.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden, Finland and Germany.


People in the emotional dimension want to be able to express their emotions spontaneously, even at work. In these cultures it is generally accepted to express one's emotions.

It is therefore important that you accept that employees with this cultural background have a tendency to express their emotions. If you work in a similar culture, you need to make sure that you resolve conflicts without taking them personally. Use positive emotions yourself, such as passion and enthusiasm, to express your point of view.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Italy, France, Spain, Latin America and Poland.

4. Specific vs. diffuse: work vs. private

By specific and diffuse we mean the difference between people who keep their work and private life strictly separate and people who tend to let both aspects of their life overlap.


People within the specific dimension believe that relationships don't have a huge impact on work goals and that people without a good relationship can work together.

It also means you can't force your employees to take their work home with them or to take part in activities that take place outside of work. Again, direct communication is essential and comes first before relationships are cultivated.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: USA, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, Netherlands.


People who fall into the diffuse dimension believe that good relationships are critical to doing business and achieving their goals. Their relationships do not change whether they interact with one another at work or in society. These people also spend their time outside of working hours with colleagues and customers.

This is why it is important that you make an effort to build and maintain relationships. The more you know about someone, the easier it is for you to get a customer and work effectively with your co-workers. So don't be surprised when people talk about work at parties or in private conversations. Not attending social events is taboo if you are ambitious in your career.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Argentina, Spain, Russia, India, China.

5. Success vs. Ascription

People from different cultures view merit differently and how one treats people based on it.


People who derive a status from their performance fall into the success dimension. It is assumed that you are what you do and that is also very important to people. These cultures place great value on achievement, regardless of who they are.

So don't expect someone to treat you differently because you happen to be a manager, an executive, or the boss's daughter. People will follow you sooner if you inspire and set a good role model for them. On the other hand, it means that you can treat others based on their accomplishments instead of their titles.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: USA, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia.


The ascriptions dimension includes people who believe that you should be valued for who you are. Here too, performance and position count.

In such a culture, one has to respect a person's title and the status derived from it, even if one does not agree with that person. When you are high in rank yourself, you are also preventing your authority from affecting the quality of your work. In this cultural dimension in particular, you have a role model function and people expect you to act accordingly.

Examples of cultures with this dimension: France, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia.

6. Sequential vs. Synchron

This dimension focuses on how different cultures handle time.


Sequential means that people in these cultures believe that events and tasks take place in a chronological order. Punctuality, agendas, schedules and clear deadlines are considered very important.

So try to be on time and meet your deadlines. Do not work on more than one project at the same time and set clear, realistic deadlines.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: the Netherlands, Germany, USA, Great Britain.


Synchron includes cultures in which people work on several tasks at the same time. Tasks and events are intertwined in terms of time and punctuality, and deadlines are only important for goal achievement. People in these cultures are more flexible when it comes to schedules and commitments.

When you work in such a culture, it is important that you adapt to it. Flexibility is the magic word for you and your colleagues. However, when there are tasks that have an inevitable deadline, you need to communicate this clearly to avoid problems.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Japan, Argentina, Mexico.

7. Internal vs. external control

Within this dimension we consider the degree of control that a person can exercise over the outside world and thus also over their work.

Internal control

With internal control (internal control point) people determine that they themselves have control over their environment and the achievement of goals.

People who work from their internal control point need personal development and “lifelong learning”. It's also important to give them constructive criticism when needed so that they can learn from it. If you set yourself clear goals with them, you can leave them largely free in their work.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: Israel, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain.

External control

With external control (external control location), people realize that their environment is in control of them and directly affects them. They also need to work with their surroundings to achieve their goals. At work, they focus their actions on others and try to avoid conflict as much as possible. Often they also need the assurance that they are doing their job well.

That means that a manager has a lot of influence over his team. If you are in such a position, give these people direction and feedback on a regular basis. Be sure to include compliments when they do their job well. Try to build up the trust of your employees step by step and to discuss conflicts calmly and personally as possible. Finally, encourage your coworkers to take responsibility for their work.

Examples of cultures with this dimension are: China and Russia.

Tip: Read our article How to deal with cultural differences in the workplace to find out how you can better put the knowledge from this article into practice.

Cover photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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