The culture somebody grows up in can influence everything from their food preferences to their gift giving habits. Culture shapes what people value, how they perceive relationships with others, and much more – which is why it’s not surprising that culture can impact survey taking, too.
As your organization grows, cultural differences become inevitable – and this is a benefit, because these differences are also a measure of your organization’s level of diversity. However, cultural differences introduce a new layer of complexity to employee surveys, which is why it’s important to be careful when interpreting survey results in a culturally diverse workplace. Whenever you find differences between groups in a cross-cultural survey, consider whether these differences signal a disparity in the employee experience, or if they simply reflect a culturally different approach to survey taking.
In this article, we’ll introduce a broad framework for understanding culture and cultural differences and explore how an employee’s culture can affect how they approach a survey. Then, we’ll explain how you can determine whether the differences you see in cross-cultural employee survey data are a matter of cultural differences or something else entirely.
What is culture, and how does it affect us in the workplace?
Let’s begin by defining culture. Cristina De Rossi, an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London, defines it this way:
“Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones and a million other things.” And importantly, culture also follows us into the workplace.
For example, researchers have found that German workers prefer when negative feedback is communicated directly, whereas Japanese employees prefer indirect methods. And while Japanese employees prefer to make decisions by consensus, Chinese workforces generally prefer a top-down approach – with French and German workers sitting somewhere in the middle.
While the examples above focus on countries, we want to note that culture and cultural differences aren’t necessarily defined or denoted by national borders. The expansive nature of culture and society often requires us to speak in broad generalizations – and we recognize that these generalizations generally don’t exactly mirror the actual beliefs, behaviors, and lifestyles of individuals in that culture. As a matter of fact, the differences between individuals within one country's culture may be greater than those between countries. However, country scores are still generally valid and used because of the law of the big numbers, and the fact that most of us are heavily influenced by social factors.
A framework for understanding cultural differences
To understand potential differences in employee survey-taking styles, we must first understand what constitutes a “difference” between cultures. One well-known framework that can help is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. In his decades of research on companies around the globe, Hofstede identified six key dimensions that differentiate cultures:
Collectivism versus Individualism is a measure of how much emphasis is placed on the group's needs versus the individual's. Those who are generous, helpful, dependable, and attentive to others' needs are considered "good" in collectivistic cultures. Individualistic cultures, on the other hand, tend to emphasize qualities such as independence and assertiveness more strongly.
Power Distance is the degree to which the less powerful members of cultures accept that power is distributed unequally. Countries with high power distance value a more hierarchical approach, whereas those with low power distance strive for a greater sense of equality across groups.
Masculinity versus Femininity is the degree to which a society prefers heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards, which is defined as more “masculine,” versus a society that prioritizes equality, modesty, and caring, which is defined as more “feminine.”
Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. This dimension emphasizes a culture’s need for structure.
Long Term Orientation measures whether societies have a future-oriented perspective or a traditional, historical point of view. This dimension explores the extent to which a society prioritizes the long-term over the short-term and is willing to delay short-term success for long-term success.
Indulgence describes the extent to which the people in a society try to control their desires and impulses related to enjoying life and having fun.
These dimensions can seep into people’s everyday behaviors, influencing everything from their communication style (i.e., Collectivism vs. Individualism) to their adherence to hierarchy (i.e., Power Distance). Different countries exhibit different levels of the above qualities, and these qualities shape people’s tendencies to behave in a certain way – including when they take a survey.
How do these dimensions translate into different survey response styles?
According to research by Anne-Wil Harzing, three main survey response styles exist. By “style,” we mean the tendency to respond to survey questions in certain ways regardless of the content.
Acquiescent Response Style (ARS): More likely to agree/give a positive response
Extreme Response Style (ERS): More likely to be highly positive or highly negative
Middle Response Style (MRS): A greater tendency to go for an average response
Harzing, in her research, found the following differences in response styles across cultures.
- Respondents from the USA – a country with high Individualism (91%), Indulgence (68%), and low Long Term Orientation (26%) – were more likely to respond positively (high ARS) as well as on extremes (high ERS).
- Respondents from The Netherlands – a country with high Individualism (71%), high Uncertainty Avoidance (86%), and Power Distance (68%) – were more likely to respond more negatively (low ARS) and less extremely (middle ERS). Respondents from other Northern and Western EU countries showed similar response styles.
- Respondents from Brazil – a country with low Individualism (38%), medium to high Indulgence (59%), and medium Long Term Orientation (44%) – were more likely to respond positively to surveys in general (high ARS). Respondents from other Southern EU and Latin American countries responded similarly.
- Lastly, respondents from China – a country with low scores on Individualism (20%) and Indulgence (24%), but high Power Distance (80%) – were more likely to go for an “average” response on all aspects (high MRS). A similar pattern has been found across other East Asian countries.
Again, we’d like to emphasize that these findings shouldn’t be used to stereotype employees from certain countries or societies. Just because some of your employees are from Brazil doesn’t necessarily mean that they responded more positively to your survey because they’re Brazilian. They may genuinely enjoy their time at your company and find the experience positive. That’s why it’s important to investigate differences in cross-cultural survey results – although cultural norms may influence these differences, they could also indicate a more fundamental disparity in the employee experience.
How to contextualize and interpret cross-cultural employee survey data
One of the best ways to contextualize cross-cultural survey data is by using benchmarks. A benchmark serves as a point of comparison for a given metric or dimension, so you can see how your company compares to other companies.
For example, if the employee engagement scores in your Brazil office are much higher than in your UK office, it could be due to a more positive and extreme response style (high ARS + high ERS). A good way to gauge whether the scores are meaningfully different is to compare against a benchmark – in this case, you’d want to see how engagement scores in your Brazilian office compare to the Brazilian average (i.e., the benchmark).
There are three key steps to follow when using benchmarks to look at cross-cultural employee survey data:
Have the right mindset. In other words, take everything with a grain of salt. Now more than ever, globalization and the movement of people mean that culture is constantly evolving. On top of that, variations in survey results are rarely an either/or answer between culture or employee experience – they are often a combination of both.
Load your benchmarks. Pick relevant benchmarks for your company. The more specific the benchmark is (i.e., same region, company size, industry), the better it is for contextualizing your employee survey results.
Contextualize the results with what’s happening in your organization. Once you’ve loaded your benchmarks and started looking at scores across cultures (i.e., by region), ask yourself if you see any differences that are unrelated to culture. At times, you may expect to see differences. Perhaps a restructuring is happening in a certain office, or a natural disaster has affected employees in a specific region.
Consider whether cultural differences might impact survey responses. Do the survey responses generally match up with local trends? If not, consider how you can listen to employees in these regions more thoughtfully to better understand how they are experiencing the company.
It’s not always easy to find a benchmark that applies to your specific workforce, but some employee experience platforms come pre-built with a rich database of employee experience benchmarks. Culture Amp’s database is the largest and most up-to-date in the world. Each year, we publish insights across industry and region, benchmarking how companies are engaging their people, and helping organizations around the world better understand their employee experience across cultures.
Understanding a culturally diverse workplace with employee surveys
When interpreted with care, cross-cultural survey data can provide valuable insights on what employees of different cultures experience in your organization. While some gaps can be chalked up to cultural differences, others may indicate a disparity in the employee experience. Recognizing the difference is key to engaging, retaining, and motivating a culturally-diverse workplace.
If you want to learn more about how you can effectively manage the employee experience on culturally-diverse teams, check out the following resources: