When push comes to shove

    Schilder mit verschiedenen Ländernamen
    © Rike/iStock.com
    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    Quite some years ago, I was talking to a Chinese manager employed at the subsidiaryTochtergesellschaftsubsidiary of a German company. I was describing how an organization’s code of conductVerhaltenskodexcode of conduct is intended to guide the behaviour of individuals in the organization and thussomitthus the behaviour of the organization itself. A code of conduct to prescribe sth.etw. vorschreibenprescribes and to proscribe sth.etw. verbietenproscribes certain behaviours, and is thus a set of rules for compliant(regel)konformcompliant action, I said. It can help managers to to tackle sth.etw. bewältigentackle the challenges of their job and to solve problems in their work.

    I paused to allow this observation to to allow sth. to sink inetw. sacken lassensink in. “But the Chinese don’t need rules to solve problems,” said the Chinese manager. “They use their personal wisdom.” A colleague of the Chinese manager joined in: “Yes, yes. Chinese people understand that, normally, the written rules are not the real rules. The real governing rules are unspoken rules, such as the rule of exchanging favours with other people.”

    “Well, that is certainly something that is regulated in the code of conduct recently introduced in your company,” I to assert sth.etw. behauptenasserted with a wryironischwry smile.

    Where do these observations leave the classic Western-style code of conduct? With a very tough job. And, more importantly, where do they leave the Chinese managers concerned? Very possibly on the wrong side of the law — at the very least, in the parent companyMuttergesellschaftparent company’s home country.

    So, when when push comes to shove (ifml.)wenn es hart auf hart kommt  (shove: (stark) schieben, drängeln)push comes to shove, does organizational culture — and its expression in a code of conduct and all the other compliance instruments — really stand a chance of consistentlykonsequent, beständigconsistently influencing people’s behaviour in the face of the influence of country culture?

    Compare the circumstancesUmstände, Situationcircumstances in which acculturationAkkulturation, kulturelle Anpassungacculturation takes place in the two settings. On the one hand, the home culture surrounds people from birth. This setting may be polyculturalhier: durch vielfältige kulturelle Einflüsse geprägtpolycultural to some extent, but one country culture is likely to be more dominant. Through interaction, people acquire the values, attitudes, meanings, norms and behaviours that are typical of this dominant country culture. This happens more or less unconsciously, more or less unquestioningly and more or less completely. Through parental rearingErziehungrearing, the guiding values may be openly to espouse sth.etw. unterstützen, verfechtenespoused, but more significantly, they are repeatedly to exhibit sth.etw. zur Schau stellen; hier: demonstrierenexhibited in action and are all the more powerful as a result.

    In the organizational setting, on the other hand, the acculturation of the individual takes place much later in life, when individual — but culturally influenced — values and behaviours are already well established. People are not totally to be immersed in sth.in etw. eingetaucht sein; hier: sich etw. zu eigen gemacht habenimmersed in the organization’s culture, but only partially. They may even move to another organization with a different organizational culture, and a new learning process is supposed to start. So weak is the force of organizational culture that the values need to be espoused in a values statement and operationalized in a code of conduct. And then it all has to be to police sth.etw. überwachenpoliced by a complianceRegelbefolgungcompliance department.

    Do codes of conduct stand a chance when faced with country cultures?

    Does it work? Maybe. Organizations certainly seem to think so, judging by the millions they spend on compliance matters. And a code of conduct definitely stands a greater chance of being accepted and actually working in more universalist cultures, in which laws and codes are preferred ways of governing interpersonal and interorganizational behaviour and keeping possibly deviantabweichenddeviant behaviour under control.

    Codes of conduct may have a tougher time in country cultures in which to take account of sth.etw. berücksichtigentaking account of particular relationships and particular circumstances is a preferred way of regulating interpersonal behaviour. In what are known as “particularist” cultures, this is a preferable alternative to relying on dodgy (UK ifml.)zwielichtig, unzuverlässigdodgy legislation, a dodgy legal system and dodgy judges.

    For example, reciprocityGegenseitigkeitreciprocity — the rule of exchanging favours mentioned by the Chinese manager — may indeed be a successful approach in settings where the codification of desired behaviour in laws and contracts, typical of more universalist cultures, is not backed up by the proper rule of law.

    And what are the consequences for corporate compliance training? This has to do more than simply to nod in the direction of sth.hier: sich oberflächlich mit etw. befassennod in the direction of the influence of country culture. It needs to to acknowledge sth.etw. anerkennenacknowledge properly the difficulty of resetting an individual’s stockBestand; hier: Spektrumstock of values, preferences and behaviours. After all, years of behaving according to different values and preferences have shown themselves to be perfectly effective and appropriategeeignetappropriate in particular settings.


    Peter Franklin teaches and researches into intercultural communication and intercultural management at Konstanz University of Applied Sciences. Since 2004, he has coached countless intercultural managers. He is co-author, with Jeremy Comfort, of The Mindful International Manager (Kogan Page) and co-editor, with Christoph Barmeyer, of Intercultural Management (Palgrave Macmillan), a collection of case studies.

    Peter Franklin