How Cultures Work: A Roadmap for Intercultural Understanding in the Workplace

by Richard G. Lewis

The author asks what effective and efficient multinational partnership looks like and how multinational teams can function practically.

In the U.S., Ralph* was a successful manager in a major corporation and was in charge of a large division in his company. Titus,* a national leader of a mission organization and seminary in Asia, was impressed with Ralph’s credentials and enlisted him to manage the school. Ralph was told he would have free reign in the seminary and Titus hoped that this American would help his college to be more efficient. Ralph lasted only one year in the position. Before he left the field, I asked Ralph why things didn’t work out. He said he quit out of frustration. Although he had a good personal relationship with the staff, and even with Titus, he explained that the department heads of the school couldn’t make decisions: “We’d set goals and action items, such as recruiting students for class activities, and assigning projects for getting things done, but progress was either slow or never happened because we had to wait for Titus, the director, to approve everything.”

From the other perspective, Titus told me he was disappointed with Ralph’s performance, stating that he felt he was overreaching in his position and trying to take control. He then gave the standard objections made by nationals that “this guy was trying to run it like they do things in America.”

Ralph and Titus had the same goal—to make the school more efficient; however, they parted ways because of a common misunderstanding in cross-cultural management. This story and countless hundreds like it are played out all over the world every day, not just with Americans living overseas, but with cross-cultural workers from Korea, Philippines, Brazil, and Romania. When two or more cultures come together, there will be the inevitable culture clash. Many people have heard or read about culture shock—the difficulties of foreigners living in a foreign environment. However, there is very little written on intercultural ministry shock, which takes place when people of different cultures come together in an attempt to labor together for kingdom work.

Globalization is a reality for the Church. Go to any bookstore website, type in the words corporate culture, and you will find more than enough material on the subject. There are also several books written on the topic of cross-cultural management—although little has been written by or for mission organizations. Partnerships and networking are buzzwords among mission strategists, and local churches are forming alliances with nationals as never before. Worldwide partnerships between Western churches, nationals, and mission agencies are popular and continue to emerge as it is assumed that partnerships are mission strategic. But what does an effective and efficient partnership look like? How can multinational teams function practically?

Mary Douglas argues that organizational decisions are largely shaped by the institutional “thought-world” (1986, 16). All institutions generate their own world of images, symbols, ideas, and past experiences. People in the institution, to some degree, must accept this thought-world in order to function. Thus, the organization as a whole largely shapes individual decisions in an institution. The first thing a foreign church worker needs to learn is how the host culture thinks. Douglas’ cultural theory using the model of grid and group is helpful in understanding cultures. Grid refers to roles within a social environment, whereas group is characterized by boundaries and distinguishes those who are inside the group from those who are outside (Lingenfelter 1998). I have modified the label categories for clarity.

The Individualist (Franchiser) is identified as Low Grid/Low Group. Independent by nature, the franchiser social environment is characterized by few social roles or positions, and is not prone to group orientation. Douglas states, “Individualism is not a formal system of governance so much as a competitive market system” (1992, 32). Franchisers strive to maintain their autonomy and want to do their own thing. They seek the help of others if it helps them meet their individual needs. Any North American who has an ounce of entrepreneurial giftedness is likely to be a franchiser. This is true even with churches that want to franchise their mission program around the world. Franchisers are task-and-result oriented. Their goal is always the bottom line and ROI (return on investment).

Using the street phrase for the establishment, The Man is the Bureaucratic system, (government, employer, military, university). In the High Grid/Low Group, The Man is everything bureaucratic. Since roles are important, everyone knows who to report to within the bureaucratic structure. Outside the organization there are few interpersonal relationships with others in the company. People working for The Man do their job and, for the most part, have a life outside the confines of the establishment.

Russia, and most of Eastern Europe, is a very bureaucratically-structured society. After seventy years of working for The Man (the Communist Party), the Russian population learned to live within the defined roles set for them by society. If a person’s responsibility was to maintain the second floor of a building, the problems on the third floor were outside his or her area of responsibility or concern. Even if one is high up in the bureaucratic system, the average Russian doesn’t take many risks, as there is always someone in the system who has more authority.

The Hierarchical social environment is High Grid/High Group. The term for it, Chief, has a tribal ring to it, but denotes any structure where there is a strong, layered leadership presence with loyal subjects. In the Indian society, a caste system permeates the rules and roles in business, church, government, and households. Unlike the Franchiser or The Man, where risk and individual interests are motivated by reward, high group societies look out for the collective group. Among hierarchical societies, a person may have low status, but is still a part of the supported group. Dominated by status and role, the Indian worldview (dharma) is to live according to the status a person is given. Although capitalism and the global economy chip away at the hierarchical system, the Chief still determines how things are done and who in the society will do it.

The Facilitator is the Egalitarian work environment. Low Grid/High Group, another description, could involve bands or tribes. The Facilitator can be a person or an organization that exists for the purpose of facilitating a task or cause. Activists for every cause imaginable form and join groups to promote what they think are important, necessary, or moral. Evangelicals who don’t place high value on institutional roles seek out congregations they believe are theologically sound and where they can have non-formal and equal status. Sometimes the agenda, cause, or theology is the dominating feature of the group and membership depends upon loyal conformity. Taken to the extreme, these high group environments become sects.

The problem between Ralph and Titus was due to a lack of understanding about how cultures work. Ralph came out of a bureaucratic, corporate environment where everyone knew his role in the corporate workplace. Titus assumed Ralph would bring his bureaucratic system into the seminary. However, the American culture is increasingly moving away from the structures of bureaucracy and is becoming more attracted to the egalitarian/facilitator system. As a franchiser, Ralph functioned as an independent who esteems innovation and risk. Like many Americans today, however, he also places value on equality and is moving away from tight authority roles. Ralph tackled the job at the seminary, crafting it in a model of a facilitator social environment with an attempt to mobilize the school to be efficient through “empowering” department heads to take initiative and be innovative.

The seminary, like most schools, businesses, and churches in Asia, is tightly controlled by a hierarchy, which is high group with well-defined roles. Titus, the chief, needed help in making the seminary to be more efficient within the parameters of hierarchal control. Titus was not looking for the department heads of the school to have autonomy. The staff, while enthusiastic about the possible changes in the school, were unwilling to take risks, knowing they had limited authority and their independent decisions could be construed as being disloyal. Titus wanted his staff to be more competent, but within a tight group structure that he controlled. Titus perceived Ralph’s suggestions as departments competing for self-interest.

Ralph viewed Titus as an obstacle for progress at best, and a tyrant at worse. Titus saw Ralph as disloyal, fostering discontent, and exceeding his responsibilities. They were both right, but couldn’t see the reason for their conflict, because neither understood how the other’s culture worked and were blinded by cultural bias.

The meeting went on for an hour and the end wasn’t in sight. The issue didn’t seem that complicated. Everyone had an opinion, but not everyone had a chance to have his say. As an American corporate thinker, my feeling was, “Let’s just vote on this and get on to the next item of business.” A fifty-one percent majority is democracy at its best.

The facilitators, my African colleagues, don’t operate on majority rules. What’s important to these pastors in rural northwest Kenya is social harmony within the group. To achieve their goal, decisions must be determined through consensus. These pastors will discuss an issue ad infinitum until they get general agreement. When everyone agrees—which could take days, weeks, or even years—a decision is made. For a franchiser like myself, who works more comfortably within a self-governing structure, this group process of building consensus seems laborious and inefficient. The franchiser trying to impose a bureaucratic system had to take a backseat to the facilitator group in decision making.

Characteristics of Low Group Decision Making (Individualists and Bureaucrats):
• Independent interests are more important than group interests.
• Primary individuals, based upon status and role, make decisions.
• Decisions are followed if they meet individual or department interests.
• Social links are for individual advantage, but have little authority in decision making.

Characteristics of High Group Decision Making (Hierarchical and Egalitarian):
• The interests of the group are more important than individual interest.
• Consensus for the common good is the basis for decisions.
• Decisions are obligatory for members to follow.
• Social links—family, clan, and institution—are the foundational authority.

In my early years in Africa, I often imposed my will on others for a vote that would reflect my decision preference. I did this primarily to speed up the decision-making process. Paternalism is still common among North American (and Korean and European) missionaries, but it’s sometimes disguised as the democratic/majority rules model. Kenyans are not opposed to change, but change is only effective if everyone is in agreement. They often perceived my behavior as impatient and impersonal.

Conflicts arise when the perception of one group toward another is culturally biased. Consider this case study of property:

An agricultural missionary developed an experimental farm in Mali, West Africa. Having secured a large plot of ground, and with the benefit of the latest farming equipment, water supply, and fertilizer, his experimental farm focused on which plants and trees were most suited for the arid climate on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Although the stated purpose of this farm was to help the people of the community, this missionary guarded his farm as though it was the site for a nuclear warhead. He was exacting about the care and maintenance of the farm tools and railed against those who were careless with his property. The Malian workers on his farm were given little beyond the meager wages of a laborer, and although the farm did indeed produce fruit and vegetables, he didn’t share his harvest with his employees, nor did he distribute the bounty with the less fortunate in the community. Instead, he sold the harvest at the market for profit. Over a period of time the missionary gained a reputation of being stingy, one of the worst things that could be said of a person in that culture.

The situation came to a boiling point when some children began sneaking into the farm at night, taking some vegetables from the garden. The missionary chased the children often, but one night, hiding in the bushes, he fired warning shots over the heads of the children with his shotgun. The community was outraged and demanded an apology from the missionary for his angry, offensive, and dangerous behavior. The missionary was defiant and unrepentant, so the officials in the area asked him to leave.

The issue of stuff. While the above story is shocking and extreme, there is hardly anything that causes more conflict between people than the issue of property. Most of humanity’s existence is centered on “stuff.” Selfishness and greed is the nature of all people; children, before they learn to walk, display a disposition of property ownership, whether over toys or food. Since material things are such an integral part of life, it is important to look at how culture and people approach the subject of property, the tensions involved with property, and the solutions to help us deal with stuff appropriately.

Grid and stuff. Franchisers who are low grid have more autonomy, and therefore control, over the disbursement of their property. They would say, “What’s mine is mine. I earned it, and I will determine how it’s spent.” Like our example above, outsiders have no right to “my stuff.” For The Man (high grid; i.e., state government agencies or companies), the boss or managers determine how stuff is used. Their view on stuff is that it belongs to the company: “I don’t own it, you don’t own it. We can use it, but it’s their stuff. If you break it, you will pay for it.” A manager in a bureaucratic system will limit the use of property to certain people, as he or she is responsible for company stuff. Part of Ralph’s frustration at the high grid Indian school was getting permission to access the use of property.

Group and stuff. The Chief values property for the group. It may be a tribe or a family business where everyone has a stake in the finances. The hierarchy of the elders (male and female) determines how the collective stuff is used. They operate with the philosophy that “what is yours is ours. The elders will decide how we use the stuff.” Facilitators (i.e., clans, religious orders, or political action groups) hold a similar view of property to that of the Chief. Although they are not as high grid as the Chief, property still belongs to the group, and how stuff is used is usually determined by consensus of the group: “What’s ours is ours, and we will agree how our stuff is used for the betterment of the group or society as a whole.”

The conflict that rose with the expatriate Individualist farmer was that he viewed property as his (what’s mine as mine). The Malian Collectivist community perceived the farm and tools as communal property (what’s yours is ours). (See below.)

Titus and Ralph’s conflict was also due to a lack of understanding of how people within cultures gain status, role, and authority. Although educated in the U.S., Titus’ status was through his family name and the line of succession of being a son of the founder of the school. In a Chief social environment, status is primarily ascribed. In such contexts, one does not have to earn his or her role—it’s granted for who he or she is, not what he or she has accomplished.

The ideal American is the person who works hard, pulls him or herself up by the proverbial bootstraps, and becomes a success story. Ralph achieved status through his college degree in business and by working his way up the corporate ladder in a prestigious international banking institution. Ralph was not fresh out of school, but was in his late thirties, which served him well in a hierarchical society where age is a criterion of ascribed status. Age and experience, however, was not enough for Ralph to override or influence the authority structure of the school. Ralph believed the other teachers in college were qualified and capable to make decisions as facilitators without the director’s approval. However, he was looking through the lens of a franchiser, which was the root cause of conflict.
Power, as Geert Hofstede (1983, 81) argues, is an issue of distance determined by society. Countries with a large power distance (such as Mexico or India) are hierarchical in nature. They view status, wealth, and education as significant factors in determining one’s position in life. Nations with a small power distance (such as Denmark or the U.S.) operate in a less hierarchical manner. A person’s socioeconomic class and educational level are relatively insignificant. Hofstede notes that “all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others.”

If partnerships are to work between the nationals’ church and missionaries, it will be because the foreigner and the host learn and understand how others play the game of life. In Half Time, Bob Buford writes,

You can choose the game, but you can’t choose the rules….And whether you like it or not, the rules govern your behavior. Follow the rules, and your chances of winning are greater. Break the rules enough times and you won’t even get a chance to finish the game. (1994, 115)

Too often, the goal of nationals and foreigners working together for the common good of advancing the kingdom breaks down because we don’t understand the rules. By understanding how cultures work, there is a better chance that everyone will have an opportunity to finish the game.

*Names changed for security reasons.

Buford, Bob. 1994. Half Time: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Douglas, Mary. 1992. Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. London: Routledge.

________. 1986. How Institutions Think. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

Hofstede, Geert. 1983. “The Cultural Relativity of Organizational Practices and Theories.” Journal of International Business Studies, Summer: 75-89.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood. 1998. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Richard Lewis holds a doctorate in missiology from Biola University and has served as a teacher and intercultural consultant in forty countries. You can learn more by going to his website:

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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