Cross-Cultural Adaption in Norwegian Companies in Brazil. Understanding Differences in Business and Work Culture

By Thomas Granli

Based on his Master Thesis (2012) in Latin America Studies at the University of Oslo*.

Thomas Granli’s thesis was sponsored by NorLARNet and BNCC.

Introduction

Cross-cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that borrows methodology and theory from various fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It has become popular in Management Studies, as companies are increasingly global and managers must cope with employees, business partners and even owners of different cultural backgrounds. Since most traditional management theory has been built on North American and Western European organizational experiences, cross-cultural studies can help in adapting management practices to cultural settings where participants do not necessarily behave according to traditional expectations.

I have been interested in Latin American culture since I was a high-school exchange student in Venezuela in 1998. Since then, I have visited many Latin American countries and both studied and worked in Brazil for several years. Brazil has recently become a favorite destination for Norwegian companies, while a few have already been there for decades. Since much of existing cross-cultural theory is based on quantitative analysis, the idea for this thesis was to perform a qualitative analysis of cultural differences based on experiences in these companies.

The intent behind this study is not to evaluate or criticize cultural practices in either of the two countries, but simply to unveil how cultural differences affect Norwegian organizations that operate in Brazil.

Research questions

Being married to a Brazilian, the issue of cultural differences is close to heart. Knowing a little about how different things can be in Brazil than in Norway, I wondered how establishing a Norwegian organization in Brazil would work out. Would a typically “flat” Norwegian management model work well in Brazil? Would companies perhaps build more “Brazilian” organizations, and if so, how would they do that? What would be the consequences? I wanted to explore these questions hoping that my thesis could prove useful for others. Before starting, I did some research and found that cultural understanding and adaption was high on the agenda of most of the business people and managers that I talked to.

The main research question that I formulated was this:

Which cultural differences do Norwegian companies encounter when operating in Brazil?

In addition, two sub-questions were added:

What challenges do cultural differences pose to Norwegian companies?

How do Norwegian companies adapt to cultural differences in Brazil?

Methodological approach

The methodological approach was divided into two main steps:

First, I analyzed existing theories, and built a framework of the generally accepted categories of cultural differences that are commonly used to compare cultures. Within these categories, I placed Norwegian and Brazilian cultures according to existing research.

Second, I conducted in-depth interviews with 8 Norwegian and 4 Brazilian managers with experience working for Norwegian companies in Brazil. The interviews were open-ended, but a set of questions were formulated based on assumptions from the categories that had been previously established.

To answer my research questions, I compared my findings and impressions from the interviews with the existing research. In addition, I drew on anthropological and sociological studies to try to explain these differences and put them in a broader context. Based on this, I also commented on the relevance of established cultural categories.

Theoretical approach and similar research

The social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s theories on cultural dimensions is the starting point for most cross-cultural research. His quantitative analysis of approx. 100.000 IBM employees across more than 70 different countries around 1970 revealed that individuals tend to display a similar “value orientation” within a country or region that could be quite different from the tendencies in another country, even if all the respondents were working for the same company. He called this the “collective programming of the mind” (Hofstede 1980). The main cultural dimensions that I used from Hofstede are:

  • Power distance, high to low
  • Collectivism vs. individualism
  • Uncertainty avoidance, strong to weak
  • Masculinity vs. femininity
  • Long-term vs. short-term time orientation

The theories of Charles Hamden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars are also widely used in cross-cultural studies (Hamden-Turner and Trompenaars 1993). I used the following of their cultural dimensions:

  • Particularism vs. universalism
  • Emotional vs. neutral
  • Ascription (class) vs. achievement (merit)

A third theory widely used in business circles is the linguist Richard D. Lewis study of global “cultural types” (Lewis 2005). According to Lewis there are three main cultural types in the world: linear-active (Western Europe, North America), multi-active (Southern Europe, South America, Africa, Arab countries), and reactive (Asia). According to his model, people from linear-active cultures (Norway) tend to be cool, factual and decisive planners. People from multi-active (Brazil) tend to be warm, emotional, loquacious and impulsive.

In addition to these theories, some anthropological concepts are relevant to analyzing cultural differences:

  • Polychrome (multi-task) vs. monochrome (one thing at a time) perception of time
  • Non-territorial vs. territorial cultures
  • High context vs. low context cultures

The categories are archetypes and can of course not describe all individuals in a given culture. Also, a culture is never one hundred percent one or the other. But research places Brazilian culture tending towards the first value orientation while Norwegian culture tends towards the second within all the categories mentioned above. Brazilians scores high on power distance while Norwegians score low, Brazilians are considered emotional while Norwegians are considered neutral, Brazilians are polychrome while Norwegians are monochrome, etc. Perhaps the most surprising of these tendencies is the fact that Hofstede’s quantitative study places Brazilians as the only non-Asians to have a long-term value orientation. I say surprising because this seems to conflict with some other common perceptions of how Brazilians relate to time. According to Hofstede´s theory, this orientation indicates that Brazilians tend to value perseverance more than other non-Asians.

The amount of comparative research on Norwegian and Brazilian culture is limited. But I found a Master thesis from the University of Oslo particularly interesting as a reference for my own thesis: “Doing business in Brazil – an anthropological study of the interaction between Norwegian and Brazilian business people”, by Anita Wold (Wold 2007). This thesis is a qualitative study of changes in Adubos Trevo, a Brazilian family owned fertilizer company acquired by Hydro´s agri-division (now Yara) in 2000. Her thesis is available here:
https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/123456789/16658

It should be mentioned that most of the respondents in this thesis work in companies related to the offshore oil and gas sector in Brazil. Petrobras holds a dominant position in this sector and has its particular organizational culture linked to its past history and present position. The fact that most foreign companies relate to Petrobras in some way could influence the outcome of the interviews, as other sectors or companies in Brazil could hold quite different organizational values. But since the development of Petrobras reflects and is closely linked to the history and development of Brazil, it should also contain an interesting and relevant perspective of Brazilian organizational development.

Main findings

During the interviews some quite clear trends emerged. One observation that was repeated by several of the respondents was that although Norwegian and Brazilian cultures are quite different, that does not mean that they are not compatible. The general view seemed to be that Norwegians and Brazilians tend to connect very well on a personal level, and Norwegian companies are finding it easier to adapt to Brazilian culture than many other foreign organizations.

Regarding the above mentioned cultural categories, I found them relevant to understanding differences in value orientation, but not very accurate or descriptive in defining the essence of such differences between Norwegian and Brazilian cultures. I found it necessary to conceptualize the value orientations in a slightly different manner in order to more accurately capture the identified differences. The proposed categories described below all have implications for how business is performed and organizations are managed:

Distribution of power – Trust vs. control:

Instead of power distance, which exists in various different forms in different cultures and organizations, I found the issue of trust versus control to more accurately describe the difference between Norwegian and Brazilian relations of power. Norwegian organizational culture is by default trust based, while Brazilian organizations tend to emphasize control. A surprising finding from the interviews was that such control was not always directed from the top-down. Instead, it was expressed that different departments or levels of hierarchy could be quite protective of their particular areas. Several of the interviewees mentioned that they found it a challenge to identify the decision makers and right points of contact in a Brazilian organization.

Group mentality – Independence vs. interdependence:

I found the question of collectivism vs. individualism to be inaccurate when comparing Norwegian and Brazilian cultures. This category seems designed to compare North American with Asian cultures. Instead, I found independence to more precisely describe a central value in Norwegian culture, while inter-dependence captures the more collectivist Brazilian value orientation. A perspective that was frequently mentioned during the interviews was that the approach to taking responsibility and ownership of actions in the workplace was done differently; while independence is both expected and demanded in a Norwegian organization, Brazilians tend to be more comfortable with clear instructions and closer follow-up.

Time orientation – Future vs. present:

Short-term vs. long-term does not seem to capture in a meaningful way the difference in how Norwegians and Brazilians relate to time. Instead, what seems to be the point of departure is that Norwegians tend to be more focused on the future while Brazilians are more focused on the present. The future oriented approach results in greater importance given to time as an independent factor. Because of this, value is given to punctuality and planning becomes a natural activity. In the more present-oriented Brazilian culture, greater importance is given to flexibility and adaptability. A general lack of planning in Brazil was mentioned as challenge by most of the interviewees, but some also mentioned that Norwegian companies are better at adapting to this than companies from some other Northern European countries.

Relation to rules – Systems vs. situations:

An interesting perspective that arose during the interviews was that when solving problems Norwegians tend to relate to systems, while Brazilians tend to approach each challenge as an individual and isolated event. This view was expressed particularly by those working in operational settings. System thinking corresponds to what Hamden-Turner and Trompenaars call a Universalist society, where rules are absolute and impersonal, while situation thinking corresponds to a Particularistic society, where rules have to be adapted to the context and the participants involved. The former approach can be seen as more predictable when solving problems and relating to rules and regulations, while the latter can be seen as more creative.

Communication – Factual vs. positive:

Challenges regarding communication were mentioned by most of the interviewees. It was expressed that Norwegians tend to be factual and direct, while Brazilians tend to be positive and more indirect. Several of the respondents stressed that being too direct could easily offend people in Brazil. Also, displaying arrogance towards facts was described as something that should be avoided. The positive communication style in Brazil was described as a source of great enthusiasm, but a tendency to avoid or omit negative information was mentioned as a common source of misunderstandings. These views correspond well with what has been described as low-context versus high-context cultures in anthropology. In a high-context society, communication tends to be indirect and information needs to be interpreted and verified according to the context and setting.

Other cultural tendencies were also found to be relevant during the interviews, such as how different attitudes towards risk affect how negotiations are performed. A less formal and more personal way of interaction in Brazil also has important implications for how business relations are built. Chapter 6 in my thesis treats these issues in more detail.

Conclusion: Discussion of the results and their implications/ relevance/ importance

“To do business in Brazil, you must become Brazilian” – Norwegian Manager

Answering the research questions, one can divide between differences that tend to manifest in an organizational setting, and differences that affect business relations. In an organizational setting some of the main cultural challenges encountered from a Norwegian perspective are less emphasis on planning and punctuality, less independence and willingness to assume ownership of tasks, a more unpredictable way of relating to rules and problem solving, and an indirect and potentially misleading style of communication. Companies adapt to these challenges in different ways, but some common answers were that they intensify follow-up of adherence to deadlines both internally and towards suppliers, direct more energy towards providing instructions and follow-up, and take care to verify and interpret information. Several of the respondents expressed a view that there should be at least one expatriate from the headquarters present at the top level of management in the Brazilian subsidiary, in order to avoid miscommunication with the main office.

Challenges regarding business relations include a general lack of trust, the personal aspect of relations, lack of openness and visibility of decision makers, and a different approach to negotiations. Some common approaches of adaptation were taking time to build relations and trust, maintaining contacts and working with different levels of hierarchy in partner organizations simultaneously, and using experienced people for negotiations. Most of the interviewees expressed the importance of being present in Brazil, and one of the respondents stressed the importance of learning to build relations and negotiating with Brazilian partners with the following statement: “To do business in Brazil, you must become Brazilian”.

As mentioned in the chapter on Main Findings, Norwegian and Brazilian cultures seem to be far from incompatible even if they are different. Aside from the challenges treated above and how they are approached from a Norwegian perspective, sources of potential benefits were also expressed. A commonly mentioned feature was a high level of enthusiasm and positive energy among Brazilian employees. Other mentioned aspects were the great dynamism, flexibility and creativity of Brazilian organizational culture. Companies that are able to not only adapt but to channel these energies to the benefit of their organization could find themselves with a competitive advantage.

The findings from this thesis show that comparative studies of specific cultures are needed to more thoroughly understand cultural differences. Established categories provide a relevant framework, but do not always capture the essence of particular differences in cultural traits and value orientations. The validity of my thesis is supported by similar findings in former studies, like Wold’s study of changes in Adubos Trevo (Wold 2007). Many Norwegian companies in Brazil are still in an initial phase of adaptation to Brazilian conditions and cultural practices. New ideas and practices can surface during these processes, and there is room and need for more comparative research on cross-cultural issues in the relations between Norwegian and Brazilian organizations and employees in the years to come.

The fieldwork was conducted during the first semester of 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, where Innovation Norway provided office space and support.  Thomas was also awarded a scholarship from the Brazilian-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce in Oslo to cover some travel expenses. He now works as a consultant in Rio.

References

In the following is a short list of references to research mentioned in this summary. For a comprehensive list of references used in the study, please see the full master thesis available online.

Hampden-Turner, Charles and Fon Trompenaars, 1993 “The Seven cultures of capitalism”, New York.

Hofstede, Geert, 1980 “Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values”, Los Angeles.

Lewis, Richard D., 2005 “When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures”, 3rd ed., Boston.

Wold, Anita, 2007 “Doing business in Brazil: An anthropological study of interaction between Norwegian and Brazilian business people”, Oslo.