Cross-cultural management and the climate crisis

Is the climate crisis our responsibility? What do we have to offer as cross-cultural management scholars? The way people and organizations relate to nature and the environment is very much our business. This is part of the cultures we purport to study. The way international managers manage cross-cultural difference, within a context of global-local power dynamics influences how MNEs approach these issues. If our scholarship really does have impact, as we say it does when assessed by our academic institutions, we have some culpability in the values and attitudes of managers and their organizations, the way they act towards local contexts, the impacts that they have on nature and the environment. We might be part of the problem. But we could also be part of the solution.

Many of us within cross-cultural management studies have been warning of the effects of ‘western’ management and business practices on local communities in different (non-western) parts of the world, but few have been warning of the effects on local environments, where management and business practices are not just contrary and detrimental to local communities and their cultures, but by implication, contrary to the custodianship of local communities of their local environment, and therefore detrimental to the local environment itself.

Like all bodies of knowledge cross-cultural management studies is a way of seeing things: a perceptual and intellectual lens for seeing and analysing the world. All such bodies of knowledge come from somewhere. They do not just spring from fresh air. They have a history. The way we understand, what we understand and the implications of what we understand, arises from being a human being, living in societies, having accumulated experiences, sharing experiences through language, making sense of experiences, conceptualising and generalising these into bodies of knowledge, and calling these facts, theories, truths, falsehoods, knowledge of how things are, how the world works, and sometimes how things should be. This is part of culture. Science, and what we call social sciences, all have their backstory. They all come from somewhere. In essence they are human-made, based on human intellectual constructs and therefore part of discrete or globalised cultures.

Arising in northern climes, Management Studies, International Management Studies, Cross-cultural Management Studies are products of international capitalism hewn and tempered in colonialism (and in its pre- and post- forms: the slave trade and globalisation respectively), and largely being an agent of global capitalism.

The connection between global (often predatory) capitalism and the climate crisis is well documented. If management studies, in its international and cross-cultural iterations, have any of the impact (i.e. on the way MNEs operate in the world) so valued and evaluated in our universities, then it could be held complicit in the climate crisis: it is part of the problem not the solution.

Credits: A local forrestry official plants a tree in a trial plot to re-establish vegetation in a heavily degraded peat swamp forest area. The trial is part of the Kalimantan Forrest and Climate Partnership. Indonesia (source: AusAID -
Credits: A local forrestry official plants a tree in a trial plot to re-establish vegetation in a heavily degraded peat swamp forest area. The trial is part of the Kalimantan Forrest and Climate Partnership. Indonesia (source: AusAID –

What we consume and the way we consume is part of culture. The way we produce, what we produce and the demand created for such production (particularly over and above basic needs) is all part of culture. The economy, both local and global (if we can separate the two) is part of culture. It is the way things are in human society, made by and within human society and therefore part of culture. The way we interact with our natural environment is a large part of culture. And of history. Or, the way we got here, what we understand of our culture, has a history.

The way I have previously defined culture as ‘comprising all that is made and imagined by the human race’ goes back to Herskovits’ 1948 definition as the ‘human-made part of the environment’ is of course more encompassing than that of Hofstede’s ‘software of the mind’. It makes any aspects of our human-created existence our business. This, as other cross-cultural specialist have argued, includes the way we interact with our environment (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s in their 1961 work, explore the dimension of ‘relation to nature and environment’). Certainly UNESCO takes this on board when they state:

Culture encapsulates the people’s living styles, patterns and habits which are central to their survival in the environment. The protection of the natural environment against indiscriminate exploitation of mineral wealth, deforestation, erosion bush burning and desertification as well as natural disasters can be achieved through the instruments of culture.

So, this includes the climate crisis, the mechanisms that got us here, our part (as academics) in the problem, what and how we study, and what we (as cross-cultural management scholars) can contribute to understanding and helping to alleviate the existential threat to our societies and cultures.

How are we part of the problem?

Management studies, in general, supports the status quo. International and cross-cultural management scholarship, generally, studies how international organisations (normally large MNEs from the global north) can manage better (normally more effectively across cultures, and sometime more appropriately). The way huge MNEs have operated across the globe has been a large part of the problem. There are of course many academic critics of this. But these are few and far between in cross-cultural management studies. With some exceptions, critical voices are silent. We study ‘safe’ topics like cultural differences, intercultural interaction, international leadership, cross-cultural teams. We do this to make cross-cultural interaction, mainly in international organizations, more effective: How should teams be built in MNEs? What is good leadership in international contexts? For some of our colleagues, this spills over to consultancy work with impact to real life situations: helping MNEs be more competitive in international situations, for example. Many universities attempt to measure ‘impact’ of their scholarly work on the real world. It is incumbent on academics to demonstrate this. The more successful we are at demonstrating impact the more culpable we are in what MNEs are doing in the world, how they operate. Successful impact of our work equals collusion.

How are we part of the solution?

Questioning our values! What impact are we having? Is this good or bad? Whose interests does this serve? How is it contributing to environment damage? How is it contributing to good environment outcomes? What is our cultural orientation to nature and enviroment? What is the cultural orientation of the MNEs we are studying, and trying to influence? Despite our apparent focus on ‘culture’ and its importance in our work, it is rarely considered directly (other than as a number of value dimensions), and returning to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s work is a good starting point. As a values ‘dimension’, this starting point is rather glib as it relates to three orientations towards the environment: a belief in the need to master nature; a need to maintain harmony with nature, and a need to subjugate to nature.

Credits: Alice Popkorn, Earth Day ~ Mother Earth -
Credits: Alice Popkorn, Earth Day ~ Mother Earth –

As Mahadevan points out, the way these orientations are interpreted by difference societies and people may be quite different, when we take for example the need to maintain harmony with nature and the environment. But simply taking these orientations on board within our studies may help us question the nature of our’s and others’ cultures and values.

It was in 2009 that the UN adopted its first resolution on Harmony with Nature and declared 22 April International Mother Earth Day. In 2020 it adopted its twelfth resolution, and it doesn’t appear to be doing any good! Yet the dialogue is there, but this needs to extend as far as scholars helping MNEs to work more effectively and seeking to influence the way MNEs work. Again, questioning their own values, the values inherent in their research, and the values of the managers and organisations they deal with.

What should we study?

In our research ‘climate’ should not just refers to social or psychological climate, and ‘ecological’ should not just refer to a level of analysis. They should feature in a discussion on the meaning of ‘culture’ in cross-cultural settings, and examine what happens when cultures collide, as they have done so many times from precolonial times to the present day in the process we now call globalisation. To a certain extent cross-cultural scholars have examined the interaction between locals and international organizations, but little of this work encompasses the effects on the local and wider environment, and the different interpretations of this. More (critical) work is now including the power relations in these interactions, and it is only a short step towards a critical study of how these relations across different cultural contexts impact on our world and its future.

How can we have impact?

In following the UN’s example, we can create a dialogue. This doesn’t mean that this will create action (as the UN’s dialogues haven’t seemed to), but then we are academics and our main job is to generate knowledge. As in another post, I would say that our job as cross-cultural management scholars is to create counter-narratives. But I would suggest that on this issue among our contemporaries there does not really exist a narrative to counter. So we may need, through dialogue to explore possible narratives in our work that include our relation to nature and the environment. What we have to offer differently to other social scientists concerned with the environment is our focus and expertise on culture and working across cultures. This is the lens we use, the way we see things. As such we can examine things critically, regarding both what we do and what we study as part of the culture we study. As specialists in management studies, we have some responsibility to relate to real life in both what we study and what we can influence. That is, we can have a real impact on the way international managers manage their organisations, their people and how this relates to locations, environment and nature. And, ultimately impacts the climate crisis and what this means for the future of our societies.

Featured Image credits: Hannu Vitanen,

© Terence Jackson 2023

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