Threats, Norms, and Culture: What a New Study of National Cultures Might Teach Us About the Cultures Our Organizational Systems Produce

Is it appropriate to kiss in a restaurant? How about in an elevator? Would it be socially acceptable to curse in a public park? Eat during a job interview? Turns out—and it’s not particularly surprising—that the answer to these questions has a lot to do with the country you live in.  It also turns out that the ecological and historical threats a country faces correlate with how its citizens respond to the answers above, according to a study published this month in Science Magazine.

The study, lead by Michele J. Gelfand of the University of Maryland, is based on research gathered in the late 1960s that introduced the distinction between tight cultures—those with strong social norms and low tolerance of deviant behavior—and loose cultures—those with weak norms and high tolerance of deviant behavior.

The most recent findings published in Science Magazine are based on data that Gelfand and her colleagues collected  from 6,824 respondents living in 33 different nations.

Every time the Science Magazine article summarized a research outcome, I found myself translating the results from citizens to employees and from nations to organizations. “Tight nations,” wrote Gelfand, “have narrow socialization that restricts the range of permissible behavior.”

That would be true of tight organizations too, I thought.

“Tight nations are more likely to have autocratic rule that suppresses dissent,” Gelfand wrote.

Ditto for tight organizations.

The inferential leap from the research conclusions about tight and loose national cultures to isomorphic conclusions about tight and loose organizational cultures raises two important questions. First, what did the researchers learn about the systemic features of national cultures that might help us understand tight and loose organizational cultures? Second, what are the implications for individuals living and working within systems that operate along a continuum from tight to loose?

One interesting and perhaps useful finding for organizational consultants is that nations with a history of dealing with threats have tighter cultures—that is, they are less tolerant of deviant behavior and have stronger social norms. Threats include high population densities, resource scarcity, territorial conflict, disease, and environmental risks. These threats create fear and fear creates a perceived need for control. Further qualitative research would help determine whether feelings of fear tend to permeate tight organizational cultures. On the other hand, anyone who has worked within cultures where conversations of threat and risk predominate wouldn’t need much convincing that fear breeds strong social norms in organizations.

As to the second question, Gelfand concluded in the Science Magazine article that “..societal members’ psychological characteristics are attuned to and supportive of the degree of constraint versus latitude in the larger cultural context.” In other words, a citizen’s values echoes the tightness or looseness of the nation’s culture. Again, you don’t need much experience with organizations to recognize the natural homogenization of personalities that send strong signals about who fits and who doesn’t.

I’ve worked with organizations in the nuclear power industry that have exceedingly tight cultures and I’ve worked with design firms that have exceedingly loose cultures. Having a better understanding of the systemic elements included in tight and loose organizational cultures may allow us to dial up or down tolerance for diversity so that organizations can become more responsive to changing environmental realities.

We may also be able to answer questions about how to increase trust in our organizations. For example, is there a sweet spot along the continuum from loose to tight where conditions for trust proliferate?

A simple framework for understanding organizational culture as a function of tolerance and openness may help us create more humane workplaces.

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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