Culture and Psychological safety

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In the 70’s, Geert Hofstede[1] did research for IBM and studied work cultures in 40 countries and came up with a culture comparison tool. I often use this tool in training with a team with many cultures, and especially with cultures that have a big power distance and high uncertainty avoidance. These are two dimensions in Hofstede’s tool and are based on the fact that all individuals in a society are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards the inequalities among us. Four dimensions (of six) especially affect Psychological Safety in a culturally diverse team:

  • Power Distance: The extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. With a high score you have a traditional hierarchical organisation where bosses rule.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: A feeling of being threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations or risk taking and avoiding challenging the status quo. With a high score you rather go with the flow to melt in.
  • Masculinity: What motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine/high) or liking what you do (Feminine/low).
  • Indulgence: The control of desires and impulses (low) or go with the flow (high).

In combination these four dimensions can indicate the challenges you might encounter in your team.

Nowadays, when I build distributed teams, I always bring Hofstede up with the actual countries represented in the team and have great discussions about the cultures and differences involved. But in my days as an Agile freshman, I didn’t do that, as you will see.

Is it possible to have Psychological Safety in a team with several cultures, and especially with cultures that have a different power distance and uncertainty avoidance? Given my experience, I say No, it is not possible to change the culture in favour of Psychological Safety if you have a big power distance. Others, like Psychological Safety guru and Professor Amy Edmondson say – Yes it can be done – but I doubt it. Her argument is that – if Japan can do it with their big (but not huge) power distance by applying Lean principles that stem from Toyota Production Systems, evolved from the manufacturing business post World War 2 – anyone can. My arguments are:

  1. Japan has not as big a power distance as Russia.
  2. They have a very different type of leadership.
  3. This was the age of manufacturing where people were interchangeable.

In Sweden we offshore our projects to India and Russia and the culture will grow where the loyalty is – and it is not in the projects! I call this the Elephant in the room because everyone feels it, but no one talks about it. I advocate that you can start your team building with discussions about the various cultures. As a Swede, I often tell others about our incapacity to come to a decision without full alignment. We call this the Swedish Consensus and it is impacting teams, especially empowered teams – where nothing really happens! The same goes for Indian people who care for their families so much that they have never been a part of, or even seen on TV, my REAL TEAM, except for their own families. Let’s talk about these challenges to Psychological Safety, create solutions and make them accepted. We cannot change people’s home culture, but we can accept and respect our different cultures in the team – if we are aware of them.

Once I was delivery manager for an Indian company, making sure our huge profit margins were intact and the Swedish customers satisfied at the same time. We counted resources, not people, and each resource had a manager. In total we had 20 resources and 15 managers. So, when I educated them in Scrum, they were all for it, but later their managers told them to do it by their old book. During the retrospectives I introduced, the manager was present in the room so the retrospective column for improvement was empty while the column for good stuff was full. Looking at India and their culture vs our Swedish ambition of building teams, we will not create Indian team players just by telling them so. It is not a coincidence that India is ranked bottom of countries in sports. The Olympic statistics tell this fact[3]. People from India have other advantages, but they will never be team players in my book.

Another episode comes from China. My friend and Agile coach Matti told me about the system of growth in a company by hiring 10% more employees each year and firing 3%. Consequently, helping a team-mate meant that you increased the risk of being fired on behalf of your team-mate’s security. So, of course you didn’t help him.

In Italy it is common to have lively discussions, not only verbal but also physical with extensive body language. It is expected, and considered polite, that you interfere and challenge this discussion and don’t wait until the speaker has finished a sentence. Imagine a Zoom session with a Swedish audience listening to an Italian person trying to inspire people, presenting a great idea he thinks he has. He talks and talks, waving his hands, but gets no reaction from the audience but silence. After 15 seconds of this awkward silence, the moderator thanks the Italian for the input and moves to the next. The Swedes will think of the Italian person as a loudmouth, and he will probably think he has been frozen out.

In one project a couple of years ago we had a Russian company working offshored for us. I was over there once a month and learnt about the people and their culture. Then we heard a rumour that the developers didn’t get paid. I went back to Russia to check this out and found it true. But I was also told that it wasn’t a problem as ‘it happens every now and then’! After a vodka night out, I hoped the Russian colleagues would tell me the whole truth, but the loyalty towards their company was stronger than the vodka effect, so they just confirmed that all was fine. Secretly back in Sweden, we worked out a plan B and prepared to hire developers from another Russian company, actually competitors to our current partners. We executed the plan, rented a hotel in Stockholm and accommodated 20 new Russian developers for one month from this new company, while our managers received threats of repercussions from the old partner, in an obvious gangster style, I might add. But that’s another story.

Hofstede Cultural Dimensions is a great tool for discussions about cultural differences in a team, in order to understand each other better. Below is an example that I have used as a team building discussion in a distributed team. The task I give the team is to talk about challenges that we are most likely to meet, given the four dimensions. The outcome of a discussion often results in amendments to our team agreement, which is kept in a safe place. As an example, we can add “challenge the status quo” to this agreement, enable gamification and give virtual points to challenges. In the exercise section I have one example of how I compared cultures in a Russian/Indian/Swedish team when introducing them to Psychological Safety.

So, no Amy, unfortunately we will not have Psychological Safety in our teams if the members have different agendas and cultures. And your excellent book doesn’t show the opposite with examples proving this has been done. Until then, culture eats Psychological Safety for breakfast, but by finding potential cultural clashes and adjusting them in advance, brave leaders could ease the implementation of Psychological Safety and anticipate the challenges involved. In order to find scientific research on cultural challenges to Psychological Safety, I googled the topic but found only a few articles and studies. Here are two:

1. Team Psychological Safety and Team Learning – A Cultural Perspective[4]

The study by Cauwelier/Ribière/Bennet from 2016 showed that Psychological Safety applies to teams from the USA and France, but not to teams from Thailand. The analysis of the interviews in this study highlights important differences between teams from the USA and France versus teams from Thailand as regards the role of the team manager, and the views that team members have on the diversity in the team.

2. The Role of Psychological Safety in Implementing Agile Methods across Cultures.[5]

This is a study by Thorgren/Caiman from 2019 highlighting how elements of workplace cultures can create unexpected challenges for Agile implementation, which may require added effort and time, and proves the importance of committed management to an Agile implementation. Likewise, the shield between the software developer team and middle management, provided by the group leader, may also be necessary when middle managers are not fully committed to the implementation.

Another learning from this study is that a careful exploration of the different cultures involved could be a valuable precursor to any implementation of Agile, but most certainly to a cross-cultural implementation. That exploration should focus on Psychological Safety and its elements of inclusiveness, collective responsibility, and open communication. Such an evaluation would not only find cultural differences, but also reveal how the workplace culture fits with the values and principles underlying Agile. By finding potential cultural clashes and adjusting accordingly in advance, managers could ease the implementation of Agile methods and predict challenges.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

[1] Geert Hofstede:

[2] Hofstede comparison:,russia,sweden/

[3]Summer Olympics: average medals per capita 1896-2020: 

[4] Team Psychological Safety and Team Learning: A Cultural Perspective:

[5] The Role of Psychological Safety in Implementing Agile Methods across Cultures:

Ove Holmberg

Doubter, gaffer, author