By now almost every country around the world has confirmed cases of Covid-19 and chances are – no matter where you live – you are currently either working from home or at a spatial distance from coworkers and customers. In these surreal times of being confronted with an invisible threat political, community, and corporate leaders are hearing the call to respond, to provide answers and solutions. It is especially in times like these, when contrasts in leadership styles come into full view. As you follow the global news you may have already asked yourself: How come the growing number of countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak are handling the pandemic the way they are? And what might influence these different responses to the health scare?
While there are several factors shaping how societies are dealing with this novel virus, many of the diverging approaches to manage the global pandemic can be attributed to culture. Political systems, societal structures, and emergency response protocols are all results of the collective behavioral preferences of the group that designed them. People from different cultures aren’t just randomly different from one another. They differ in quite specific, often predictable, ways. This is because each culture has its own way of thinking, its own values and beliefs, and different preferences placed on a variety of different factors.
Simply put, culture impacts everything groups of people do – especially, how they solve problems and how they manage crises.
As of now, roughly three months into the global outbreak, three coronavirus response macro trends have emerged. Let’s call them the authoritarian (contain at any cost) approach, the liberal (let’s adjust ourstrategyin real time) strategy, and the populist (it’s only a flu spread by China) method.
Before we compare these three crisis management styles, let’s look at a tool set which trainers and coaches in the field often refer to: cross-cultural dimensions. Dimensions are an interculturalist’s measuring units. They allow practitioners to compare behavior preferences across cultures, based on robust data collected in nation cultures all over the world. Dimensions indicate how people act along a certain spectrum: We either value universally applicable laws and rules, or we tend to weigh particular situations separately. People are either more long-term oriented, or short-term motivated. And so on.
Among the cultural dimensions most relevant in assessing the response to the coronavirus pandemic are Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism, Individualism vs. Group Orientation, and Task vs. Relationship.
In countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore the response to the outbreak was rather swift and governments clamped down rigorously. This can be seen as a reflection of the fact that the cultures in these countries tend to be quite hierarchical, collectivist, and relationship-focused. One anecdote from Taipei may serve as an example: During this crisis the Taiwanese government is monitoring people’s movements via the GPS in their phones. When one person’s cell phone battery died it took less than 30 minutes for government agencies to call the person’s landline. 5 minutes later, the police were at their door to check if they were home. While this might seem excessive to many people from liberal Western societies, citizens in hierarchical and highly collectivist cultures find these measures acceptable.
As the virus began spreading throughout Europe the responses to the crisis were as dissimilar as the cultures of the continent are. In mediterranean cultures like Spain and Italy which are one or two degrees less hierarchical, group-oriented, and relationship-focused (compared to the above mentioned Asian cultures), the reaction to the health threat was much less immediate. Only as the rapid spread of Covid-19 became apparent did the authorities dial up the severity of counter measures. Keep in mind as well, that – as part of the European Union – Italy and Spain have a responsibility to coordinate border shutdowns with their EU neighbors, since this restricts the free movement of people, goods, and services among the countries which are part of the Schengen agreement.
This is also the case for Austria, Germany, or France – three countries in which individual civil liberties are highly valued and not easily curtailed. Leaders in these countries only gradually gave in to the warnings of virologists and health experts. It was only with hesitation that German authorities imposed curfews and a piecemeal lockdown of public life.
Then, why is it that the mortality rate of Covid-19 patients in Italy is so much higher than in Germany? Experts are still examining this, and it unsure if culture plays a role here. One aspect to consider, though: Italian households often still consist of three generations under one roof, whereas Germans tend to leave the nest in their early 20s.
The third response group currently on display are countries like the United Kingdom or the United States – two countries like-minded in many of their cultural values. In fact, almost all Anglo-Saxon cultures, including Australia and New Zealand, tend to rank very high on the individualism and egalitarianism scales. Personal rights and individual freedoms are paramount in Anglo cultures and any attempt at restricting these rights are typically met with fierce public resistance. Combined with a sense of exceptionalism, these countries are exploring their own path in the fight against the coronavirus.
In the end, no matter which region in the world will have responded most effectively– culture forms the way they manage the crisis.
Founder and CEO of The Culture Mastery
Christian Höferle is German by birth, American by choice, and Bavarian at heart, and he is the founder and CEO of The Culture Mastery, a U.S.-based cross-cultural consultancy serving multinational organizations through tailored training and coaching programs.