Male, pale and stale — who you are or what you do?

    Business Spotlight 2/2021
    Finland’s cabinet
    © picture-alliance/Reuters/Lehtikuva
    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    It was not the usual political photo op (US, ifml.)(Presse-)Fototerminphoto op. Five women — four of them in their 30s and all leaders of their respective political party — announced the formation of the new Finnish coalition government in Helsinki in December 2019. Led by Sanna Marin, 34 years old at the time and the world’s youngest prime minister, the cabinet of 19 ministers included 12 women. This was not surprising perhaps, given the Nordic countries’ reputation for gender equality and for mixing traditional gender roles, which Dutch intercultural researcher Geert Hofstede pointed out many years ago.

    With not a grey-haired man in sight, the picture was strikingly different from the photos of the largely male, pale and stalealt, verbrauchtstale elites still often found in politics and business in Europe. How can this persistingfortbestehendpersisting picture be explained? It to come down to sth.auf etw. hinauslaufencomes down to this question: on what basis do societies tend to award status, influence, and organizational and political power? Is status
    to ascribe sth.etw. zuweisenascribed, on the basis of membership of a particular group within a society? Or does status tend to be earned, on the basis of achievement and performance? And how much importance does a society attribute to performance anyway?

    On what basis do societies tend to award status, influence, and organizational and political power?

    ascriptiveaskriptiv, tradiertAscriptive cultures will award status and influence to people because they are male and not female (or vice versaumgekehrtvice versa: some societies are matriarchal), older and not young, or because they belong to the “right” family, class or political party or attended the “right” school. In short, status is to confer sth.etw. verleihenconferred through membership of a particular group, not on the basis of proficiencyKönnen, Kompetenzproficiency.

    The Dutch organizational theorist Fons Trompenaars  (see box below) brought this phenomenon to the attention of international management. He points out that in an ascriptive setting, the first question likely to be asked about a job applicant’s education is “Where did you go to university?” In an achievement-oriented culture, the first question is more likely to be “What exactly did you study?”

    Fons Trompenaars

    Fons Trompenaars, author of the pioneeringrichtungs-, zukunftsweisendpioneering book Riding the Waves of Culture and co-author of a series of books on cultural aspects of business, leadership and management, is a sought-after consultant and management guru. Building on Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils’s “general theory of action” from 1951, Trompenaars supplies insightEinblickinsights into the dimensions of cultural variation found in management: neutral versus affectiveaffektiv, gefühlsbetontaffective in the disclosureOffenlegung, Enthüllungdisclosure of feelings; ascriptionZuweisung; hier auch: Gewährungascription versus achievement in the to assign sth.etw. zuweisenassigning of status; diffuse versus specific in the range of involvement; collectivism versus individualism; universalism versus particularism in relationships with others; the management of time (past, present and future; sequential and synchronic); and the management of nature (internal control versus external control).

    People from ascriptive cultures may appear to those from more achievement-oriented cultures to be rather old and lacking in specialist knowledge and competence — and, for that reason, they may seem to be ncomprehensiblyunfassbar, unbegreiflichincomprehensibly high in the organizational hierarchy.

    For more achievement-oriented cultures, performing to a high standard and demonstrating a high degree of knowledge and competence are said to be the paths to achieving status and influence. Organizations implement complex performance management systems in an attempt to reward the high achievers and to to incentivize sb.jmdm. Anreize bietenincentivize (or to weed sb. outjmdn. aussortierenweed out?) the low performers.

    To members of more ascriptive cultures, people from achievement-oriented cultures may seem knowledgeablesachkundig, kompetentknowledgeable, unjustifiablyungerechtfertigterweiseunjustifiably to be full of oneselfsich wichtig nehmenfull of themselves, young and therefore uninfluential in their organizations. Despite their ostensiblevermeintlichostensible emphasisBetonung, Akzent(setzung)emphasis on achievement, Western societies are perhaps to deceive sb.jmdn. täuschendeceiving themselves when they to look down one’s nose at sb./sth.auf jmdn./etw. herabsehenlook down their noses at societies in which connections and nepotismVetternwirtschaftnepotism are essential for the acquisition of status. Even in the West, there is some truth in the old sawSpruchsaw that it is often who you know and not what you know that counts.

    Also, some cultures tend to regard performance differently from others. The GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) study discovered, for example, that Finland is amongst the top 20 societies when it comes to valuing performance. What counts is not who you are, but what you do. What is valued is a “can-do” attitude and a record of achievement. Maybe these are the qualities that led to that striking image in Helsinki.


    Peter Franklin is professor of intercultural management at Konstanz University of Applied Sciences. His work in HR development helps people and organizations to understand, handle and leverage cultural diversity. Contact: 

    Peter Franklin

    Neugierig auf mehr?

    Dann nutzen Sie die Möglichkeit und stellen Sie sich Ihr optimales Abo ganz nach Ihren Wünschen zusammen.

    Das Business Spotlight Sprachmagazin