people & culture
A growing body of cross-cultural research suggests that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings is immense. The most interesting aspect of a culture may not be in the observable things it does - the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like, but in the way it molds its most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception over time.
In my travels I’ve discovered that people in industrialized countries that have been handed down certain knowledge and customs through thousands of generations seem to share common behavioural patterns while those in developing countries seem to share other values. Its worth noting, that from my perspective, the term 'developing' is both pejorative and ambiguous. There is no nation in the world that is not developing. As such, development because it is a matter of degree, is always relative. Also, I believe the term does not and should not have any reference to cultural or social inferiority.
Developing nations encompass a large and diverse group of countries. Clearly, it is difficult to describe shared characteristics among such a heterogeneous group. These nations include very small island states (for example, the Caribbean and Pacific islands) as well as large sub-continents (i.e., China and India), it includes a variety of political forms (Communist States, Kingdoms of various kinds, and Democracies). All ethnic groups, races, and religions are represented in this world. However, there are some common characteristics - many developing countries have limited resources (technological, physical, and qualified human resource), inadequate infrastructure, economic and political instability, limited access to social services such as good education and health care, high population growth, a potentially aging workforce, lower literacy and in most cases power rests within a small select group.
From a socio-cultural perspectve, research tends to indicate that a cultural group consists of prevailing and shared values, norms, assumptions, belief systems, and behavioral patterns in a society. Economic and political structures as well as historical events shape culture. Similar cultural characteristics that are observed within the group of developing countries could be attributed to their similar historical background (e.g., autocratic ruling, colonialism, etc.), political environment (e.g., volatility and instability, improper law and enforcement system), economic conditions (e.g., resource scarcity, insufficient technological infrastructure), and demographic makeup (e.g., aging workforce, unequal opportunity to access high quality education).
Having worked in a number of developing countries, I thought it would be interesting to share some perspectives and lessons learned on the matter especially since I believe the developing world provides significant opportunities for learning and developing new business and economic opportunities.
The Relationship factor
One of the most notable cultural characteristics in developing countries is the importance of relationships and networking. Interdependence in a trusting relationship serves a critical function in reducing uncertainties and maximizing benefits when resources are scarce. Harmony within the group is preserved at all cost. Relationships and networks supersede rules and procedures in every aspect of social, political and economic life. Those who are close to 'persons within the group' or those who matter usually get the organizational benefits, while others (i.e., the out-group members) may find themselves in an alienated position. Family and relatives are natural in-group members. In-group membership is also extended to those from the same ethnic and religions group, as well as close friends. Getting in and out of the in-group is difficult. Loyalty, as the glue to keep the in-group intact, is the second most important determinant of membership status; acceptance to and dismissal from the in-group depends on the level of loyalty. There is often no 'wrong' or 'right', there is only loyalty and playing according to the rules of the group.
Family is important in every society. However, in developing countries, family has priority in people's lives. Work and family lives are closely interrelated. Work is perceived as a duty done in service of the family. Achievement at work is valued as a means of meeting family needs and increasing family's status in society. Family atmosphere is also created in a business context. First, businesses are expected to take care of workers as well as their families. Some businesses offer health and educational services to employees' spouse and children, contributing to their housing and heating, and providing them with financial assistance if necessary. Moreover, employees feel entitled to absent themselves from work for family-related reasons. Work always comes next to family, and there is nothing more natural than this even at times when business priorities call for an extra effort. Deadlines may be due, but at a certain hour, expect some people to pack up and just leave. This is of course not the norm.
In developing countries, the pattern of communication in organizations and society as a whole is indirect, non-assertive, non-confrontational, and usually behind the scenes. Negative feedback is viewed as 'destructive criticism' rather than a constructive remark for further improvement. Because personal and work lives are intertwined, negative feedback is also misconstrued as an attack on the person. Negative feedback has the potential to tarnish one's reputation and honor in the eyes of others. It also implies losing face to the employer and the supervisor to whom the person feels indebted and loyal. In a highly personalized work relationship, negative feedback is considered as harmful to group integrity and harmony. Usually, negative feedback is given in an indirect and subtle manner with the involvement of a third party. Subordinates don't give performance feedback to their superiors. There is strong preference for face-to-face communication in business dealings.
The level of respect and loyalty towards superiors are amongst the most important cultural characteristics in developing countries. People respect 'authority' rather than 'rules'. Obedience to authority is a prescribed norm in some religions and belief systems like Islam and Confucian ideology. Authority is rarely challenged and questioned. The person holding the power and authority is trusted for his/her knowledge, expertise and achievements. The person is entitled to have certain privileges that others don't have. There are some paradoxical dualities in the superior-subordinate relationship. First, there is high respect but also high affection towards the superior. As such, there is an element of both love and fear in this relationship. Second, being an in-group member, the superior is not considered as 'one of us', but a person with higher status, he/she is 'unlike us'. Third, superiors have close relationships with the subordinates and are involved in all aspects of their lives, but this does not translate to an informal 'friendship' relationship. Instead, the subordinate-superior relationship is most often formal and distant.
Power & Leadership
Another leadership characteristic in developing countries is leader's desire to exercise power. The balance to be achieved is difficult to comprehend. On one hand leaders wish to maintain good interpersonal relations with subordinates on the other hand they seek to act in an authoritative way.
It is very common that leaders use their status and power for personal benefits. For instance, high level managers clearly favor their in-group members in personnel decisions such as staffing. Leaders are highly status conscious. They may resist change not to lose power or relinquish authority. They want to remain in power to maintain status in society. Despite close and good interpersonal relationships with workers, they demand formality and respect. Workers are strongly discouraged to bypass authority. And if authority is bypassed, the repercussions can be severe.
The decision making process reflects the power inequality. Usually, the process is centralized, and decisions are made unilaterally. This is partly because leaders fear to relinquish power by being participative. Subordinates also expect leaders to be decisive, not only because they trust their wisdom, knowledge and competencies, but also they are afraid of taking risk and responsibility by getting involved in decision making. Making mistakes is not acceptable.
In developing countries, often the image of a strong leader is someone who knows it all, and who is a hero and a savior. Sometimes a leader maybe perceived as weak and incompetent if he or she is excessively participative. Instead, they pursue a 'consultative' approach where they consult their subordinates (usually in an informal way), and give the final decision unilaterally.