Dutch anthropologist Fons Trompenaars and English business professor Charles Hampden-Turner developed seven dimensions of culture that give key insights into successful international trade negotiations. The two researchers studied how people in specific countries resolve dilemmas, and based on an examination of thousands of respondents in over 100 countries, they identified seven basic dimensions for culture. International businesspeople use these dimensions when they design business strategies for different cultures, a task that is particularly important for dealing with emerging markets. One of the dimensions is achieved status versus ascribed status, which is defined below. Applications of the dimension then follow.
The concept of achieved versus ascribed status stems from the work of Talcott Parsons in his studies of social stratification, which Parsons defined as the “differential ranking of human individuals who compose a given social system and their treatment as superior or inferior relative to one another in certain socially important respects.” Parsons defines ascribed status as that which results from birth or biological hereditary qualities, such as sex, age, or inherited socioeconomic status. At the other end of the spectrum, Parsons proposes that achieved status results from personal actions, such as that accomplished through talent and hard work.
Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner adapt Parsons’ thinking on ascribed versus achieved status to the study of cross-cultural management. Thus, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner propose that an “achievement culture” is one in which people are accorded status based on how well they perform their functions, while an “ascription culture” is one in which status is attributed based on who or what a person is. Achievement cultures give high status to high achievers, such as the company’s top salesperson or the drug researcher who finds a new treatment for controlling blood sugar. In an achievement-oriented culture, the first question someone may ask is “What do you do?” or “What have you done?”, thus putting an emphasis on accomplishments.
In achievement cultures, social status can be changed through social mobility, the change of position within the stratification system. Changes in status can be upward or downward. Social mobility is more frequent in societies where achievement rather than ascription accounts for one’s social status. Historically, social mobility has been typical of the United States.
Ascription cultures accord status based on age, gender, schools attended, or social connections. Perhaps the most extreme form of ascribed status was the caste system in traditional society in India. Each person’s caste group was determined at birth, as children joined their parents’ caste group. Moving out of one’s caste was virtually impossible as each caste could only perform certain jobs. Unskilled and low-paying jobs were reserved for lower castes, while highly skilled occupations were reserved for other castes.
In organizations in an ascription culture, the person who is part of the “old boys’ network” may rise faster in an organization than someone who does not interact with the network. Similarly, an organizational member who has been with the company for 25 years may be listened to more often because of the respect that others have for the person’s age and tenure with the firm. Thus, in an ascription-oriented culture, the first question someone might ask is “Where are you from?” or “Who is your family?”, focusing on inherent characteristics.
For example, though this is slowly changing, in U.S. culture, males, particularly white males, have a high ascribed status and females have a lower ascribed status. The high ascribed status of males can outweigh many other status and power factors, including high achieved status and high-dominant personality traits in a woman. To counteract the initial ascribed status differences based on sex, research on leadership demonstrates that to reduce the power disadvantage experienced by females because of their low ascribed status, women had to be made to appear more competent than men in order to attain the same level within an organization.
To illustrate the influence of achieved status versus ascribed status, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner asked respondents from different countries whether status should be based on age (an ascribed status). Over 60 percent of American, Australian, British, Canadian, and Swedish respondents disagreed that age should be given special consideration. By contrast, over 60 percent of Japanese, Korean, and Singaporean respondents agreed that age should be given additional status.
Among the ascription cultures are Belgium, Brazil, China, France, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and Venezuela. By contrast, achievement cultures include the United States, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Austria, Germany, Mexico, and Spain. Trompenaars further found that nations’ cultural values tend to cluster together. He identified five such clusters—an Anglo cluster, an Asian cluster, a Latin American cluster, a Latin European cluster, and a Germanic cluster. While countries within each culture do not share every dimension in common, there are far more similarities with the clusters than there are differences.
In achievement cultures, an organizational member’s title is only used when it is relevant. In addition, superiors earn respect through job performance. Organizations in achievement cultures often have a diversity of age, gender, and race/ethnicity in management positions.
In ascription cultures, the use of titles is expected as a sign of respect. Furthermore, whether or not the superior has earned his or her position through job performance, respect for the superior is integral to showing commitment to the organization. Finally, managers are often chosen based on their background (such as did they graduate from the “right schools”) and age.
Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner recommend that when individuals from achievement cultures do business in ascription cultures, they should be aware that such cultures emphasize seniority in the chain of command. Consequently, individuals from achievement cultures make sure that their group has older, senior, and formal position-holders who can impress the other side, especially by respecting the status and influence of their counterparts in the other group. On the other hand, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner recommend that when individuals from ascription cultures do business in achievement cultures, they need to be aware that firms emphasize rewards and respect based on skills and accomplishments.
In addition, it is common that managers defer to those who possess expertise in certain technical and functional areas of the company. Thus, businesspeople going into achievement cultures should make sure that their group has the resources (such as data, technical advisers, and additional experts) to convince the other group that they respect the knowledge and information of their counterparts in the other company.
- Talcott Parsons, “An Analytical Approach to the Theory of Social Stratification,” American Journal of Sociology (v.45, 1940);
- Larry Samovar, Richard Porter, and Edwin McDaniel, Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 11th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005);
- Fons Trompenaars, Riding the Waves of Culture (Irwin, 1994);
- Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business (McGraw-Hill, 1997).
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