Pragmatism vs Tradition: Long-Term vs Short-Term Orientation

Previously, we explained the uncertainty avoidance cultural dimension and how you can avoid conflict caused by differences in this fundamental dimension.

In this post, we explain how your cultural programming affects whether you have a more pragmatic approach to life or whether you prefer to maintain existing norms — and the impact this has on business.

Long-Term vs Short-Term Orientation (LTO)

Preparing for the future vs looking towards the past (also called Flexhumility (LTO) vs Monumentalism (STO) or Pragmatic vs Normative (PRA)).

Long-term orientation <—–> Short-term orientation

Long-term orientation = a pragmatic approach toward life; encouraging thrift, effort and modern education as a way to prepare for the future

Important values: pragmatic innovation and adaptation, modern education is necessary for success, long-term sustainability (especially in business), save for the future, responsibility to obligations, compromise is pragmatic, modesty, ‘what’ and ‘how’

Short-term orientation = maintenance of time-honoured traditions and norms; suspicion of societal change

Important values: respect for tradition, steadfastness, change is bad, religiousness, short-term profit, spend money now, rights and values, compromise is weakness, self-aggrandisement, ‘why’

Similar to uncertainty avoidance, LTO concerns a society’s attitude towards the future. But in this case it reflects how pragmatic a society is about preparing for the future.

Societies with a short-term orientation (low LTO) like to maintain ties to traditions and norms (customary ways of doing things) and are suspicious of societal change. In other words, they look primarily towards the past.

Societies with a long-term orientation (high LTO) are pragmatic about preparing for the future. They foster innovation and adaptation, encourage thrift and saving, and view education as necessary for future success. They also value effort and responsibility to obligations. They look primarily towards the future.

How LTO affects business

In countries with a long-term orientation, such as China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, business owners and managers are much more likely to invest in building up strong market positions at the expense of immediate results.

In countries with a short-term orientation, such as the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Germany, business leaders are much more likely to be focused on immediate results — the “bottom line.”

Other important differences:

  • Individuals from a high LTO culture may be more willing to compromise. For individuals from a low LTO culture, compromise can be seen as a sign of weakness.
  • People in low LTO cultures tend to oversell themselves and their abilities. High LTO cultures tend toward modesty. This may cause conflict when people from lower LTO cultures set expectations higher than they are able to meet.
  • People in high LTO cultures are more likely to ask ‘What’ and ‘How’ than ‘Why’. This is reflected in a pragmatic attitude toward business and negotiation. Accomplishing the desired end result is more important than analysing the reasons behind problems and evaluating the truth of information.
  • Businesses in low LTO cultures often don’t pay attention to how their actions and decisions now will affect the company in ten years, or the next generation. This can be seen as short-sighted by businesses from high LTO cultures and could cause conflict.

Tips for You

So how can you adjust when doing business with someone from a different point on the LTO scale? Here are some tips.

1. The first step, as you know by now, is to understand what your own personal culture is. Look at the culture(s) you have been strongly influenced by. Does it value doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’? Or is there more of a pragmatic attitude towards life and change?

2. Remember that the other person’s behaviour and attitude are cultural, not personal. And remember that your behaviour and attitude are conditioned by your cultural programming. No one is right, and no one is wrong. People simply have different perspectives — that lead to different end results.

3a. If you are from a society that is higher in LTO, it is likely easier for you to adapt because you have a more pragmatic attitude. People from low LTO cultures tend to resist change and flexibility. Therefore, do your best to find a way to work with them.

3b. If you recognise that your cultural programming is low in LTO, this is a very important first step. You will help yourself and the business relationship if you pay attention to two critical things:

1. Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

2. When you notice yourself being rigid and resisting change (e.g. to the terms of an agreement or an agreed delivery date), follow these steps:

a) STOP.

b) Recognise what is happening and how you are feeling.

c) Take 1–3 slow breaths. This will help you to move beyond the emotional reaction and be more clear-headed.

d) Look objectively at the pros and cons of the suggested change, and try to respond pragmatically.

The understanding of this cultural dimension is from the book Cultures and Organizations by Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov.


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