Imagine this setting: A small company consisting of about 8 people. They busy themselves with interim services (finding and placing candidates within companies). All this in the country Belgium. Most of them work remote. There is not really one office, and most communication is done by phone and/or e-mail.

Seems pretty efficient doesn’t it? That’s what I thought too, until I got this story from one of the people working there.

It turns out that there was a problem with receiving email for this particular person (can’t reveal the name). Not much of a problem and technically easily fixed. The technical part is and was not the problem. What turned out to be the case is that the Managing Directors were receiving emails in blind copy (BCc) of everything that everybody either received or sent. So much for (the right?) for privacy.

Ok, from a cultural point of view.

What’s the cultural make-up of Belgium according to Professor Geert Hofstede ([amazon_link id=”0071664181″ target=”_blank” ]Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition[/amazon_link])? I’ll list the first four dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: 65
  2. Individualism: 75
  3. Masculinity: 54
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: 89

Which dimensions make the most sense in explaining this behavior by the 2 bosses (the reading of all emails sent and received by their employees)?

My best pick would be Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance.

Why Power Distance?

Belgium scores culturally relatively high on dimension 1 and 2. The consequence is that most Belgians will do what their boss tell them to do. In other words they will accept (not necessarily respect) their boss. In addition, Belgians are quite Individualistic. Meaning in this case that they also have an “agenda” of their own. The combination of the two (dimensions 1 & 2) make that when a Belgian subordinate accepts the assignment of their boss, ánd their own “agenda” doesn’t “support” this, they might follow their own agenda in the case the boss is not paying attention (or “inspecting” what they do). So, as a boss you’re better off knowing what your people are doing all the time. Hence the screening of all the emails by the two bosses in this company (and they did screen ALL emails!).

Why Uncertainty Avoidance?

Simply put, in order to (in this case almost literally) avoid the uncertainty of not knowing what “others” are doing it is best to always know everything. In countries that score high on this dimension, people will pick up their mobile phone and answer any and all calls even when they’re in meetings. In the above mentioned company reading all sent and received emails was an easy way to “know” what others were doing.

Do you have a simlar experience? Please put your comments here below!

Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit
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