Is it fair for everyone to get the same benefits, or is it fair to provide everyone with the benefits they specifically need?
Are rules applicable to everyone, no exceptions, or is it ok to make exceptions for friends and family?
Do all the commitments need to ideally be agreed in writing, or is it flexible and verbal word is equally binding?
As you might have figured out by now if you read this blog regularly, the responses to those questions may differ depending on the cultural background of the individual you’re working with. Most individuals will likely not be simply one or the other ‘type’. Rather, everyone would have a certain preference, which falls at one point in between the two ends of the spectrum we are discussing. This week it is Universalism vs Particularism dimension.
Read about other dimensions as well!
What does Universalism and Particularism mean?
Universalism versus Particularism is the extent to which you prefer to apply the same standards to everyone versus making exceptions.
When working with universalists, you may expect to have many rules, policies and procedures in place to ensure everyone is treated the same and it is clear which rules apply in what situation. Examples of countries where the universalist approach is more common are: US, UK, Austria, Germany, Denmark.
In particularist cultures however, it is ok to make exceptions to some individuals, especially if they are friends or family, more flexibility around the rules is common. Examples of regions where this approach is very common include: Latin America, Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa.
Where does Universalism-Particularism dimension matter?
I can see this cultural dimension at play very often in my Global Mobility role. When relocating their employees, companies can vary in terms of the amount of flexibility they have around the allowances provided to their assignees.
In the company I work for, which is American, there are clear rules as to what type of support is provided to the assignees, based on, for example their role and the size of family they are relocating with. In other companies, those rules may not be as clearly fixed and it’s more of a selection of allowances which a company is willing to cover for the assignee, depending on what they need.
It is interesting to see how when those fixed allowances are confirmed to the individuals, some people are just like “Fine, thanks for confirming”, while others usually coming from more particularist country backgrounds are trying to see where the flexes are, eg. “If I don’t use this X service, could I get the Y service instead?”.
This means that when setting any forms of benefits to your employees you should consider the cultural differences. Depending on your company’s organisational culture and the employees’ backgrounds, there may be different expectations and also different ways of assessing what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ benefits are.
Paperwork and documentation
The amount of paperwork and memos which people expect when accepting offers or relocation assignments can differ too. If I’m working with colleagues moving from, for example, Germany to the UK, they are usually very clear that they want to see a written confirmation of the relocation offer and everything that’s involved in it, before committing to this agreement, even if it was discussed over the phone or email before. Others – certainly many of them moving from more particularist regions of the world or having that cultural frame of reference – don’t necessarily require that. They are most often happy with a confirmation of the details over the phone or email and don’t start asking more detailed questions until they arrive to the country.
Again, when setting your policies and procedures you may want to see what flexes are possible to make sure to cater for many different types of people. After all – their satisfaction with the services is key. But their evaluation of whether something was professional or not, good or bad, may be influenced by the backgrounds of where they grew up, lived and worked.
In an example as simple as this one, you can imagine how the universalists could be perceived as inflexible by more particularist colleagues if the particular demands cannot be met due to certain policies and treating everyone fairly and equally. Similarly, the particularist colleagues can be seen as demanding and showing favouritism if they flex the rules for some people but not others based on the context.
But it can matter also in other, bigger scale strategies. Think about your rationale for making a certain decision regarding eg. what benefits you chose for your employees, how you calculate bonuses, what is the eligibility to get sponsored for a certain training or to get a promotion.
Your position on this cultural dimension spectrum may matter more than you think in this decision-making process! That is why it is important to increase the diversity of your team members and make sure that everyone feels an equal member of that team. That way, you are guaranteed to have different points of view in the room, which will help you come up with best solutions for your particular context. The next step though is to think about how to ensure that those various inputs are actually provided to you in the first place!
How to work with those differences?
As with any dimensions classifications, similarly with this one by Cultural Intelligence Center, it’s best to look at a relative position of your preference versus the person’s you are working with. You don’t necessarily need to be on the two extreme sides of this spectrum to notice the difference in approach to certain aspects of working life!
If your preference is closer to Universalism and you’re working with someone who has more Particularist approach:
- Show flexibility where possible as to the rules and procedures, based on the context, to the extent you are comfortable with those exceptions
- Spend some time and energy on building trusting relationships with the people you work and/or do business with – those will get you very far
If your preference is closer to Particularism and you’re working with someone who has more Universalist approach:
- Make sure to confirm the agreements in writing and stick to what has been agreed
- When setting policies and procedures, see where you could perhaps be a bit more flexible (eg. providing a range of values rather than just one fixed figure) to cater for both types of audiences