International Attitudes Towards Change

It is no secret that individuals tend to be suspicious of change as it represents a passage from the known to the unknown. J. Frank Brown, managing director at General Atlantic, writes: “Different cultures react to change in different ways. Like people, some thrive on it, while others resist.” Indeed, collaborators’ individual attitudes towards change are a crucial factor for the success or failure of a change initiative and it is essential to take this into account to ensure the success of a change initiative. However, one also needs to bear in mind that collaborators from different cultures may exhibit different attitudes towards change.

Lines (2005) defines attitudes toward organisational change as a collaborator’s “general positive or negative evaluative judgment of a change initiative implemented by his or her organization”. Much research has been conducted on the links between attitudes towards organisational change and individual personality traits (Nikolau et al. 2004), organisational culture (Rashid et al. 2004), job satisfaction and many more factors. De Jonge (2015), expert in corporate governance in Asia, points out that societal values, beliefs and traditions may constitute larger social forces influencing responses to change. However, little research has been conducted on the intercultural differences in attitudes towards organisational change.

In this light, Professor Geert Hofstede, using a large database of employee value scores, was the first to conduct a comprehensive study of how organisational culture and values are influenced by national culture. The study uses a model of national culture consisting of six main pillars: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation and indulgence. Of particular interest in the analysis of attitudes towards change will be the score of uncertainty avoidance and long term orientation:

  • Uncertainty avoidance refers to “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these”.
  • Long term orientation refers to the way in which “every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future”; this will indicate how societal changes are viewed.

Some of the scores have highly remarkable discrepancies (e.g. masculinity), and the scores for ‘uncertainty avoidance’ and ‘long term orientation’ also differ, thus demonstrating that these countries will have different attitudes towards change: Out of the three countries, these figures suggest that Norway will demonstrate more ease with change, whereas Japan might be highly reluctant to change.

The Geert Hofstede website hosts data from over 70 countries and hence provides an interesting database one can use to research intercultural differences in attitudes towards change. Even though the Hofstede study used a large empirical dataset, one must not forget that the scores are relative; it would be ill-advised to solely rely on these scores when analysing attitudes towards change. Instead, one should aim to get a detailed insight into societal values, beliefs and traditions of a particular national culture in order to understand how it may influence attitudes towards change. Conducting research on factors such as the business etiquette and managerial culture of the respective country may already suggest how the national culture influences the organisational culture.

Furthermore, the following three questions may also provide a certain degree of insight into the national culture and its influence on change:

  • Does a hierarchical society hold onto traditions more strongly or is this more the case in a liberal society? Gladwell (2008) argues that strongly hierarchical societies may be more likely to passively resist change by neglecting new policies and practices, whereas more liberal societies might find it easier to show overt reluctance to the adoption of change and explicitly contradict and criticise new policies, thus creating space for further discussions.
  • What is the current economic situation of the country and has the latter undergone any major changes in recent times? In their study on the links between organisational culture and attitudes toward change, Rashid et al. (2014) found that 98% of their respondents from manufacturing firms were receptive of change. They linked this finding to the economic situation of the country and suggested that due to the slow economic growth and rapid technological advancement in their respective business environments, Malaysian managers might be more willing to adapt to changes in order to ensure the survival of their organisation. Rashid et al. further suggested that major change initiatives on the Malaysian scene, such as takeovers or restructuration of large local companies, have also lead to greater acceptability of organisational change within other organisations.
  • How do people communicate in the respective countries? Do people communicate a lot or do they keep communication to a minimum and only express themselves when they are certain of what they want to say? Are styles of communication rather direct and blunt or more diplomatic and non-confrontational? Yilmaz et al. (2013) have highlighted the importance of communication to ensure the success of change initiatives, for example by providing employees with as much information as possible, similarly by consulting them and encouraging their participation the management nurtures their positive attitude towards the change.

All these factors may serve as indicators of the attitudes towards change initiatives one might encounter in different cultures. The following suggestions will provide support handling a change initiative in an unfamiliar culture:

  • First of all, it is essential to be aware of one’s own cultural values and beliefs, as well as the existence of intercultural differences.
  • Cultures that are change-shy will need more convincing, it is thus essential to personally embrace the change, stay positive and open, and allow for failure (this is especially important in cultures where failure signals a loss of face).
  • Brown (2007) suggests that to develop the necessary awareness and know-how required to overcome intercultural differences in attitudes towards organizational change, one needs to demonstrate patience and sensitivity. Not all societies are oriented towards change and innovation, thus a change initiative is more likely to succeed if one demonstrates these qualities and adapts one’s approach to the home culture of the collaborators.

Even though there are many intercultural differences in attitudes towards change, the adoption of these dispositions will facilitate change initiatives in any given environment.

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  • Brown, J. F. (2007) The Global Business Leader: Practical Advice for Success in A Transcultural Marketplace. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • De Jonge, A. (2015) The Glass Ceiling in Chinese and Indian Boardrooms. Women directors in listed firms in China and India. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  • Gladwell, M. (2008) Rice Paddies and Math Tests: Outliers. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
  • Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Second Edition, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.
  • Lines, R. (2005) The structure and function of attitudes toward organizational change. Human Resource Development Review, 4: 8 – 32.
  • Nikolau, T. et al (2004) The Role of Emotional Intelligence and Personality Variables on Attitudes Towards Organisational Change. Journal of Managerial Psychology. Vol. 19 Iss 2 pp. 88 – 110
  • Rashid, M. et al. (2004) The Influence of Organizatioal Culture on Attitudes Towards Organizational Change. Leadership & Organization Development Journal Vol.25 Iss. 2 pp. 161 – 179
  • Yilmaz, S. et al. (2013) The Impact of Change Management on the Attitudes of Turkish Security Managers Towards Change. Journal of Organisational Change Management. Vol 26 Iss. 1. Pp. 117 – 138