Managing change across different cultures

Managing change is a leadership skill in all situations. However, there is an added complexity when you are trying to bring about change in multi-cultural environments.

IB schools are often rich diverse multi-cultural environments. In this section we look at some of the challenges school leaders face in managing change and sustainable development when working with people - pupils, staff and parents - from many cultures.

We also consider some tools you can use in managing change with different national cultural groups.

Guiding Definition

Culture refers to the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate social behaviour. Culture forms values, creates attitudes and influences behaviour.

Hofstede considers national culture as "The collective programming of the human mind."

Culture can be likened to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the smallest part. Most of the iceberg is submerged. The same is true for a culture. That which you can easily see – the behavior of people – is the smallest part of culture. It is external while the greatest part, internal culture, is beneath the water level of awareness. It is inside people’s heads. This internal culture includes our way of thinking and perceiving. Most importantly, it contains the values and beliefs unconsciously learned while growing up in a particular culture. These values and beliefs determine most behavior.

We do not understand people from other national cultures as readily and intuitively as people from our own culture. When managing change across different cultures it is important to gain understanding of national cultures and how similarities and differences will affect the management of change.

Activity 1: Culture is important - setting the scene

National cultures can have different styles of communication.

HSBC brands itself as 'the world's local bank'. They position themselves as 'the global bank who never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.'

Watch the following advertising videos from HSBC.


  • What messages do HSBC videos on national cultural differences have for us?
  • How strong are different national cultures present in your school? To what extent do they represent different attitudes to education and what learning should look like? Consider this in relation to the expectations of students, staff and parents.
  • Just because there are different national cultures within our staff and parent body, do we as change managers have to adapt out leadership in any way? If so, how?
  • Why do you think cultural intelligence is important?

Activity 2: Understanding cultural contexts

Read Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai and Da and watch the video Getting to yes across cultures in which Erin Meyer explains the importance of having the cultural intelligence to read cultures in today's globalised world where what gets you to “yes” in one culture gets you to “no” in another. 
Use both the article and video to collect lessons learnt in the form of 'Top Tips' which you gain from this material.

Activity 3: Intercultural encounter - identifying the issues

When cultures meet it can sometimes feel like a collision of icebergs. It is important to note that the largest part of a person's cultural iceberg is below the water line of awareness. As cultures come together people may see differences in behavior, but the most significant differences are at the unconscious level, that of underlying values, attitudes and beliefs.

How you handle cultural differences can be a matter of success or failure in bringing about change in your school. Smart management decisions depend on everyone understanding and bridging their cultural differences.

Watch Bridging two kinds of cultural differences, in which Blythe McGarvie, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, describes the key areas in which cultures differ and how to diagnose where you and your colleagues are on cultural continuums.

  • Which key areas of cultural difference are highlighted?
  • Where do you as a school fall on these cultural continuums? What are the key issues for you?
  • How can you create 'win-win' outcomes?

Understanding the dimensions of culture

Cultural differences have been examined and categorized in research. Once these differences are understood they can be managed.

Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication. It describes how a person’s culture affects their values, attitudes and beliefs and how these are related to how a person behaves. The original piece of research was carried out with over 116,000 respondents from over 70 different countries who worked in the local subsidiaries of the firm IBM between 1967 and 1973. Whilst the original theory proposed four dimensions along which cultural values could be analyzed it has been refined since and now includes six dimensions.Geert Hofstede's work has become popular in understanding cross-cultural management.

The six cultural dimensions are explained in the following table:

Individualistic vs CollectiveHow personal needs and goals are prioritized vs. the needs of the group or organization. In individualistic cultures individual behavior is important. In collectivistic cultures group behavior is important.
Masculinity vs FemininityMasculinity is defined as “a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success.” Its counterpart represents “a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.”
Uncertainty Avoidance IndexHow comfortable are people with changing the way they work or live (low UA) or prefer the known systems (high UA).
Power Distance IndexThe extent to which less powerful members of organizations accept that power is distributed unequally. Where there is a low power distance people are treated as equals despite social status. Where there is a high distance people accept authority relations.
Long-term vs short-term orientationLong-term perspective, planning for the future, perseverance values vs. short time past and present oriented. A lower degree of this index (short-term) indicates that traditions are honored and kept, while steadfastness is valued. Societies with a high degree in this index (long-term) views adaptation and circumstantial, pragmatic problem-solving as a necessity.
Indulgence vs Restraint

Indulgence is defined as “a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun.” Its counterpart is defined as “a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.”

Activity 4: Exploring the cultural dimensions of my school

Explore the Hofstede Centre website here. The website allows you to explore your own culture and compare it to other cultures by accessing the country comparison tool.

  • To what extent do you think this tool is able to explain cultures you know? Maybe pick your home culture and also the one you are working.
  • Consider how these cultural dimensions within the school context. For example: how do different classrooms look when there is a high or low power distance? What are the differences between schools and classes where students are expected to be individuals and speak up or to be part of the collective and keep quiet unless asked to speak? How and why do different cultures think differently about education and how does this impact classroom expectations?

Managing change across different cultures

An understanding of the dimensions of national cultures helps to manage change successfully across different cultures. The following diagram provides a model of management considerations you should take into account when contemplating a process of change.

Activity 5: Case Studies

Consider how you manage change in the following situations. In each case consider:

  • How is the challenge to be understood?
  • How would you manage the situation?

Case Study 1: Bring a quality culture of coaching to a national school where the educational values and background of many teachers were often not compatible with the requirements for collaboration.

Case Study 2: Embedding the IB Learner Profile in all teaching and learning by encouraging all to take creative risks where many teachers would prefer to avoid uncertainty.

Case Study 3: Developing a teacher appraisal process in line with what is considered best practice in the western world. This means that teachers are assessed by their department head according to an established set of criteria. However, some department heads are younger than their staff. The nature of direct feedback could also prove problematic.

Dig deeper

Interfacet have produced helpful videos to explain Hofstede's cultural dimensions:

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