Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Organizations as a Force for Good

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Over the course of many years I have been fortunate enough to work in many different countries, with many different companies and in many different industries. One cross-company, cross-country, cross-industry study that has been repeated several times has been aimed at answering the question, “What is stronger, local culture or company culture?”.

And there are usually a few corollaries to that question which revolve around how international companies manage diverse global populations. Should one set of rules, one set of principles be in place globally or should companies adjust for local cultural nuances. Does “Do no evil”, or other corporate values statements work outside of the country where the corporation originates?

At the risk of oversimplifying, the way this study is typically executed is to take employee survey results from a large number of companies with multiple country locations. You would then match the survey items across the companies and countries. You hold constant as many variables as you can across the companies, matching them on occupation, tenure, gender etc. You then examine the data to determine if Company A in USA is more like Company A in China, Canada, Vietnam, Germany, etc. or is it more like Company B in those same locations. In other words, if Company A is more like Company A across countries, company culture is stronger. If Company A is more like Company B, or C, or D in their respective countries, then local culture is stronger.

Each and every time I have seen the results of this kind of study the findings are very clear. Company culture is stronger than local culture. That may surprise a few of you, especially those who are used to looking at power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, uncertainty avoidance etc., or those who simply feel that local culture can be very strong in many places, so let me explain.  If a company has an internal culture of strong ethics, customer focus, quality, respectful treatment, fairness or equal treatment, etc., that internal culture will override a local culture that may be less ethical, or less concerned about customer treatment, etc. People of course want to do a good job at work, (see they understand what is defined as doing a good job in a company they join and they tend to quickly conform to that definition. In these employee surveys we are not asking about local cuisine, predominant religions, clothing styles, or at what age should young people marry, etc. all of which of course can vary tremendously around the world, after all cultures in various countries are in fact different. We are asking questions about how they work, what they see in their working environment, how they feel about their treatment, about management, about the products and services they build or deliver etc. We are asking about the world of work, not their personal world (though of course there is some overlap).

So, if a company operates in an ethical fashion, or in a manner to treat all staff equitably regardless of their differences, etc., those characteristics are transportable around the world and can override local culture where fairness of treatment, or other characteristics are not necessarily common in that society in general. Companies can be a force for good as they operate globally if they have the right cultures in place. Here is an example. I was conducting a focus group of employees for one company in what will have to be an unnamed country. This was a company that put a great deal of emphasis on treating people fairly and giving equal opportunity to all, celebrating each and everyone’s differences. There was one participant in the focus group who decided to discuss his sexual orientation. He said coming to work was like a breath of fresh air in his life because he was accepted for who he was at work, even though outside of work in this country there were very negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people. The company culture, within the work environment, overrode local culture (as well as being aided by other factors such as familiarity).

If we broaden this out a bit what are the implications?

A company is simply a kind of organization to which people have voluntarily become members. People become members of many different kinds of organizations, or subgroups within those organizations, and upon joining those organizations or subgroups they tend to accept/tolerate the values of those organizations or they, within a fairly short period of time, exit those organizations.

Any organization has a set of values regarding how staff will be treated not only by the company but by other staff members, how customers will be interacted with, the emphasis on product quality, it’s regard for the law, norms of behavior, societal standards etc., in aggregate that represents the organization’s culture. Every company, every organization has a culture whether they work explicitly to achieve one or if they just let it arise on its own. Some organizations can have sub-cultures within the larger organization, or upon examination you may find that the organization’s culture is fairly uniform. (In general, organizations with uniform cultures outperform those with a number of sub-cultures, all other things being equal – but that is another study – see

An organization that sets a high bar, a bar of high ethics, equal treatment, intolerance of bad behavior etc. can project that culture domestically as well as internationally and into countries where that high bar just may be a bit lower. If they do so they can help raise the standards by which society functions. Any organization that sets a high bar can be a force for good.

The USA is simply another kind of organization, and the people who are living here are members (some by choice and some were born here). We don’t necessarily have a uniform culture or a uniform set of ethical standards, but historically the USA, while certainly not perfect, has been an example of how countries should operate in terms of the rule of law, freedom of the press, corruption, ethics, fundamental rights, torture etc. Even though at this moment the ethics, rule of law, level of corruption etc. in this current administration are questionable, I am hopeful that our institutions are strong enough to overcome the downward path we have taken and put us back on the right path. By building bridges to other countries, by working with our international allies, by protecting the vulnerable, leading by example our organization, our country can once again be a force for good.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 21, 2018 at 4:51 pm

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