The Culture of Professions: A Comparative Study of Bankers in the United States and Scotland
The increased globalization of business presents a number of specific human resource development (HRD) challenges. One of these challenges is created by the increased mobility of workers across national borders (Ernst & Kim, 2002; Felker, 2008; Shamir, 2005). As workers move within and between firms across national borders, workplaces are becoming more culturally diverse, with a mixture of workers coming from multiple, often quite different national cultures. For people working within a profession, such as banking, this multi-cultural diversity has additional implications for how they work.
Individuals learn what it means to be a professional through the values and practices they learn in the formal educational system required of their profession and through workplace experiences in their country of origin (Greenwood, 1957; Van Maanen & Barley, 1982). For example, how much independence a banker feels in executing their duties without supervisor direction may be affected by where they learned to be a banker. A banker who started their career in a highly decentralized environment may find working in a highly centralized environment stifling. A bank with a culture of teamwork and collectivism, where success is defined and rewarded by the accomplishments of the work group or team may find motivating employees from cultures emphasizing individual performance and recognition difficult. Potential culture-based differences abound in multi-cultural organizations.
For the purposes of this comparative essay, the banking profession has been chosen because it is a very mature profession and there are banking professionals in virtually every nation in the developed world. Further, the banking industry experienced a dramatic crisis in 2007-2008 which resulted in significant distress to the banking profession in Europe and the United States (Brunnermeier, 2008; Popov & Udell, 2010; Turner, 2009), making inspection of this professional culture relevant. The banking profession includes personal bankers, loan officers, branch managers, and financial management personnel higher up in the corporate ladder (ABA, 2014). For national cultural perspectives, the United States and Scotland have been chosen for comparison based on their accessibility and familiarity to the author.
While research into professional cultures has increased in recent years, no studies have focused on the banking profession specifically. Moreover, most studies that investigate professional culture do not factor in national culture influences and differences. Therefore, this essay examines the professional banking culture in the United States and Scotland through a cross-cultural lens building on two separate but related streams of research: national culture and professional culture. The research question is “how does the banking professional culture differ in the United States and Scotland?”
Workplace culture can be analyzed at the individual (micro-), organizational (meso-), and the societal (macro-) levels (Hofstede, 1980, 1983, 1984). For example, at the micro level, how does the South African banker prepare to work for a bank in the United States? What cultural phenomena will affect the banker’s experience in his or her new setting? At the meso- level, how does the Scottish bank manage a professional staff composed of individuals from other nations? At the macro- level, how does the banking profession change in response to its members’ mobility across national boundaries? While a multi-level analysis would yield a broader and deeper understanding of professional cultures, this study analyzes the phenomenon at the ‘profession’ level, which is the societal or macro- level. Implications to practice will also be described at the individual and organizational levels.
For the purposes of this essay, professional culture is defined as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one profession from another” which is adapted from Hofstede’s definitions of national culture and organizational culture (1997). In the context of professions, collective programming of the mind means patterns in the way individuals think, feel, and potentially act that were learned through the shared personal, educational, and workplace experiences of individuals operating within the same profession (Hofstede, 1997; Trice & Beyer, 1993). The term ‘occupational culture’ is also used in research of professional culture, however, the differences appear to be semantic rather than substantive, and there is no consistent application of the two terms. For example, the terms ‘occupational culture’ and ‘professional culture’ are applied inconsistently to studies of information technology and information systems workers (Guzman, Stam, & Stanton, 2008; Guzman & Stanton, 2009; Marincioni, 2007), teachers (Gaysina, 2015; Yamada & Hasegawa, 2010), and police (Glomseth, Gottschalk & Solli-Saether, 2007; Monjardet, 1994).
A literature review was conducted to explore the current state of knowledge of the culture of the banking profession in the United States and Scotland. A search of 44 databases accessed by Proquest was conducted in November 2014 for peer reviewed articles published since 2000 with “professional culture” or “occupational culture” in the document title or abstract. Of the 371 documents found, a within-results search was conducted for documents with the term “bank” anywhere in the document. This term was selected to narrow the search for content relevant to the banking profession. However, only seven articles were found, and none of them addressed the professional culture of the banking profession. The titles and abstracts of the 371 documents found in the primary search were then scanned to identify potentially relevant articles. None specifically examining the professional culture of bankers was found.
A second search was conducted for peer reviewed articles published in the past three years with “banker” or “banking” in the document title or abstract, with 2,109 articles found. A within-results search was conducted with the term “professional culture” contained anywhere in the document, and only two articles were found. Both articles addressed elements related to professional culture, but did not specifically examine professional culture. For example, in an empirical study of 128 bank employees from a large, international bank, Cohn, Fehr and Marechal (2014) applied the economic theory of identity to demonstrate the banking culture weakens and undermines the honesty norm. The authors note the absence of sound empirical evidence on the culture in the banking industry hinders the study of this phenomenon.
In an empirical study using survey questionnaires and semi-structured interviews of 120 employees of several large multinational financial institutions in the United Kingdom, McCann (2013) applied labor process theory to explore participants’ workplace culture in the period leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. His findings focused on the effects of poor leadership, with respondents identifying “detached, ruthless, and often incompetent top leadership, operating in an ‘echo chamber’, insulated from the ‘realities’ of the workplace” (p. 398). These two articles highlight professional culture as critical to understanding the nature of banking, particularly in light of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, but they are limited because each only focused on one aspect of professional culture: Honesty in one study, and leadership in the second.
While there has been a growing body of research into professional culture over the past 20 years, there have been virtually no empirical studies focusing on the professional banking culture. However, there have been numerous studies focusing on the cultures of specific professions at the societal, or macro-level, several of which inform this essay. The most promising research found is Jacks’ and Palvia’s (2014) exploratory positivist investigation in which they developed and validated an instrument designed to measure information technology (IT) professional culture. A set of six value dimensions was proposed: Structure of power, control, open communication, risk, reverence for knowledge, and enjoyment. The instrument was developed based on a review of IT literature followed by structured interviews with seven IT professionals, which served to validate the dimensions identified. A 25 question instrument with five point Likert scale responses was administered to groups of 25 IT professionals in a university setting and 54 IT professionals in a corporate setting. The instrument was found to be highly reliable with good construct validity across both groups, suggesting the instrument does in fact measure professional culture.
The researchers defined structure of power as the level to which individuals believe that power should be distributed versus being centralized. Control is the level to which individuals believe that they should have more formal, structured control processes. Open communication is the level to which individuals believe that they should communicate openly with other groups. Risk is the level to which individuals believe that they should be comfortable with taking risks in order to innovate. Reverence for knowledge is the level to which individuals believe that they should accept distinctions between members on the basis of IT technical knowledge. Enjoyment is the level to which individuals believe that work should have certain play-like aspects like fun, creativity, and challenge.
Jacks’ and Palvia’s (2014) empirical study is relevant to this essay for three reasons. First, the level of analysis is at the macro, or profession, level, which matches the level of analysis in this study of the banking profession. Second, cultural dimensions are identified for the purposes of describing and measuring professional culture, which would prove useful in a comparative study. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Jacks’ and Palvia’s (2014) dimensions share common themes with Hofstede’s (1983) dimensions of national culture and Trice’s (1993) forces that contribute to occupational culture. For example, the Jacks and Palvia (2014) structure of power dimension is similar to Hofstede’s (2001) power distance dimension and Trice’s (1993) level of influence wielded cultural characteristic in that all three measure power centralization. The control dimension is reminiscent of Hofstede’s (1983) high uncertainty avoidance dimension, which addresses issues of control. Jacks and Palvia’s (2014) open communication dimension is not commensurate with any one Hofstede (1983) dimension, but issues of how professionals value open or closed communication are peppered throughout all five Hofstede dimensions, especially in the low power distance dimension. The risk dimension addresses willingness to innovate, which is likewise addressed in Hofstede’s (1983) low uncertainty avoidance dimension. Jacks’ and Palvia’s (2014) reverence for knowledge dimension is reminiscent of Hofstede’s (1983) high individualism dimension, which reflects values of the individual as professional expert.
While this is a cursory comparison, when taken as a whole it appears the Jacks and Palvia (2014) dimensions of IT professional culture and Hofstede’s (1983) dimensions of national culture consider similar types and kinds of workplace values and practices. Both models likewise share some similarities with other workplace culture models, including those of Trice (1993), Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998), and House et al. (2004). Perhaps the most important difference then is the maturity of each model as reflected by the number of confirmatory studies supporting the culture model and how widely adopted and recognized each model is: Jacks’ and Palvia’s (2014) work has yet to be replicated or extended, being new, whereas Hofstede’s (1983) work has been widely replicated and extended for more than thirty years.
Professional culture is often analyzed at the meso- or organizational level, as it interacts within the organization as a subculture. In a case study of an Australian home-care service, Bloor and Dawson (1994) postulated a new conceptual framework for understanding professional culture in organizational context. The authors were among the first to study professions as distinct cultures similar in nature to organizational cultures.
Professions, then, can be understood as being cultures similar to organizational cultures in so far as they exist within an historical context and professional environment, which, together with the societal culture, shape their operating practices and professional codes, beliefs, values, and ceremonies. These are used to varying degrees by members, both individually and collectively, to make sense of and manipulate events in their professional lives. Professional culture therefore provides a set of cultural values and practices which are accommodated into the culture of organizations. (p. 284).
Bloor and Dawson’s framework has informed the large body of subsequent research into subcultures in general, and into professional sub-cultures specifically, however it is not useful for analyzing professional culture at the macro- or societal level as the framework is based in large part on the organizational dynamic that is absent in the macro- context.
National Culture in an HRD Context
There are three primary streams of research on national culture that are central to the human resource development (HRD) context. Since the research in this area is comprehensive, the streams are introduced and summarized here for brevity. The first and most prominent stream of research is Hofstede’s famous study of more than 160,000 IBM employees in 54 different countries and three regions of the world, in which he compared aspects of culture across national and regional lines that affect business behavior (1980, 1983). Hofstede’s (1983) five dimensions have been validated and replicated numerous times across a range of populations, and is the most frequently cited of the three leading national culture research streams. A second stream is led by Trompenaars (Smith, Dugan, & Trompenaars, 1996; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998), coincidentally a Dutchman like Hofstede, who in response to Hofstede’s (1983) work, and through a study of 43 countries parallel to those studied by Hofstede, developed a series of seven dimensions that are in many ways similar to Hofstede’s five dimensions. The third national culture research stream is known as the GLOBE study which measured responses in 62 nations against nine cultural dimensions (House et al., 2004). Like Trompenaars’ and Hampden-Turner’s (1998) work, the GLOBE study (House et al., 2004) was motivated by a desire to replicate and extend Hofstede’s (1983) original work to address leader attributes and behaviors, and as such has added to the cumulative knowledge of workplace culture across nations. All three research streams are highly respected and underpin a large volume of cross-cultural HRD research.
Given the similarities in the three models or frameworks reviewed here, and the high degree of recognition and adoption of the Hofstede (1983) five dimensions of national culture, the Hofstede (1983) model will be applied as a lens to examine the professional culture of banking in the United State and Scotland.
Hofstede’s Five Dimensions of National Culture as a Lens
Hofstede’s five dimensions of national culture are power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, and long-term versus short term orientation (Hofstede, 2001). Power distance is defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally” (p. 98). In the workplace, high power distance would be reflected in highly centralized decision structures, high proportion of management and supervisory personnel, reliance on formal rules, authoritative leadership style, and information flow constrained by hierarchy. Low power distance would include decentralized decision structures, flat organizational hierarchy, consultative leadership style, and openness of information.
Uncertainty avoidance is defined as “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations (p. 161).” In the workplace, high uncertainty avoidance would be reflected as strong loyalty to the employer and long tenures, constraints on innovation through extensive rules, strong appeal of technological solutions, hierarchical managerial controls, a task orientation, and precision and punctuality. Low uncertainty avoidance would be reflected as weak loyalty to the employer and shorter job tenures, skepticism towards technological solutions, free innovation, tolerance for ambiguity in structures and procedures, a relationship orientation, and flexible work arrangements.
In the individualism versus collectivism dimension, individualism is defined as “ties between individuals are loose: Everyone is expected to look after himself or herself (p. 225).” In contrast, collectivism would mean workers were integrated into a strong, cohesive in-group, which protects them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. In an individualistic culture, individuals act in their own best interests, managers hire based on individual qualifications, the employment relationship is transactional in nature and rewards are based on individual performance. In a collectivist culture, individuals act in the group’s interests, individuals are hired based on their fit within the group, the employment relationship is an emotional commitment, and rewards are based on the group’s performance.
For the masculinity versus femininity domain, masculinity represents assertive, tough, materialistic preferences, where femininity represents modest and tender, with concerns for the quality of life. It should be noted that on an individual level, men or women may show bias towards either the masculine or feminine scale of the dimension. In the workplace, high masculinity would be reflected as a ‘live in order to work’ mentality, where meaning is derived from security, pay and interesting work, and where assertiveness, decisiveness, firmness, and a competitive attitude are valued. Low masculinity would be reflected as a ‘work in order to live’ mentality, where meaning is derived from workplace relationships and working conditions, and where intuition, emotions, compromise, and involvement are valued.
The long-term versus short-term orientation is the newest dimension added to Hofstede’s (1983) dimensions, driven by research conducted by Bond in Hong Kong (Chinese Culture Connection, 1987). Based on the concepts of persistence and thrift, personal stability and respect for tradition reminiscent of Confucian teaching, Hofstede defines long-term orientation as “oriented towards future rewards, in particular, perseverance and thrift (Hofstede, 2001, p. 359).” Short-term orientation is “the fostering of virtues related to the past and present, in particular, respect for tradition, preservation of ‘face’, and fulfilling social obligations (p. 359).” High long-term orientation would be reflected in the workplace as deferred gratification of personal needs, frugality in spending, saving and investing, strong market positioning, structured problem solving, and synthesized thinking. Low long-term orientation would reflect immediate gratification of needs, bottom-line focus, analytic thinking, and fuzzy problem solving.
In theory, comparing the relative indexed scores for Scotland and the United States for each of the five dimensions should identify potential workplace differences banking professionals would experience in the two nations. Unfortunately, Hofstede’s (1983) IBM data did not distinguish Scotland from the remainder of Great Britain (GB), therefore, for the purposes of this essay GB’s indexed scores serve as proxy for Scotland.
Beginning with the power distance dimension, both the US with a score of 40, which is 38th place out of 53 nations surveyed, and GB with a score of 35, tied for 42nd position, rank very low on the index (mean = 57), indicating low power distance norms. However, since the difference between the two rankings is relatively small, it is likely the banking professional culture is similar in regards to power distance norms within the two nations.
For the uncertainty avoidance dimension, both nations rank low on the index, with the US ranked 43rd of 53 nations surveyed with a score of 46 and GB ranked tied for 47th with a score of 35 (mean = 65). As in the power distance dimension, since the difference between the two rankings in the uncertainty avoidance dimension is relatively small, it is likely the banking professional culture is similar in regards to uncertainty avoidance norms within the two nations.
For the individualism versus collectivism domain, the US ranked highest of all nations with a score of 91 and GB ranked third overall with a score of 89 (mean = 43). As in the previous two dimensions, the difference between the two rankings in the individualism dimension is extremely small, meaning it is likely the banking professional culture is similar in regards to individualism versus collectivism norms within the two nations.
For the masculinity versus femininity dimension, both nations scored similarly highly, with GB ranked tied for 9th of 53 nations with a score of 66 and the US ranked 15th with a score of 62 (mean = 49). As in the previous three dimensions, the difference between the two rankings in the masculinity dimension is small, meaning it is likely the banking professional culture is similar in regards to masculinity versus femininity norms within the two nations.
For the fifth dimension of long- versus short-term orientation, there again is little difference in the indexed scores. GB is ranked 18th of 23 nations with a score of 25 and the US is ranked 17th with a score of 29 (mean = 32). The first four dimensions used data from the original IBM study, while the long- versus short-term dimension used data from the Chinese Values Survey (Chinese Culture Connection, 1987) which has been subsequently validated against the IBM data (Hofstede, 2001).
Given these results, what can be concluded about the professional banking culture in the United States and Scotland? First, it is reasonable to conclude the professional banking culture in the two nations are quite similar. The scores and rankings for all five dimensions place the two nations quite near each other in comparison with each other and with the other nations measured.
Second, we can begin to suggest what the banking culture in the two nations would be like in light of the scores for the five dimensions. Since both nations scored low on the power distance dimension, the scores suggest the banking profession in both nations values decentralized decision structures, flat organizational hierarchies, small proportions of supervisory personnel, management that views themselves as resourceful democrats, consultation with subordinates when making decisions, application of a consultative leadership style, and open sharing of information.
Since both nations rank low on the uncertainty avoidance dimension, we could assume banking professionals in both countries evidence weak loyalty to their employers, feel a skepticism toward technological solutions, feel empowered to innovate, involve top managers in strategy, have a tolerance for ambiguity in structures and procedures, are attracted to transformational leadership style, are less concerned with precision and punctuality, are relationship oriented, are common sense based, and are optimistic about subordinates’ ambition and leadership capacities.
For the individualism dimension, it could be assumed banking professionals in both countries prefer to be seen and treated as individuals, with rewards and incentives made at the individual level based on their own performance. Leadership is viewed as the domain of individual leaders, and employees contribute to the bottom line directly through their own efforts. Hiring and promotions should be based on skills and performance, and poor performance is the only reason for dismissal. Banking professionals’ relationships with colleagues do not depend on the group identity, and people are treated based on their position and performance in the company.
From the masculinity versus femininity dimension, banking professionals in both countries would treat their jobs as central to their identity, and derive meaning from work through the security, pay, and interesting work they do. They would value managers who were decisive, firm, assertive, and bold, and successful managers would be seen as having masculine traits regardless of their gender. They would expect more men in management roles than women, and accept a pay gap between men and women. They would value the competitive spirit, and face conflict head-on.
From the fifth dimension of long- versus short-term orientation, we would expect banking professionals in both nations to expect quick results, but demonstrate personal steadiness and stability. Leisure time would be important to them, and they would have a small percentage of income saved in financial investments rather than real estate.
Third, banks in the US and Scotland can take some comfort in knowing that issues of mobility are minimized when assigning banking professionals between the two countries. While working in a foreign country brings with it natural challenges inherent to relocation, banking professionals will find their new workplace will feel familiar to them.
Finally, it could be argued that applying Hofstede’s (2001) five dimensions of national culture as a comparative tool is insensitive to small differences in culture that may exist within professions. However, this approach does provide some insight into what being a banking professional in the United States or Scotland is like.
Hofstede’s (2001) culture dimensions (and Tromperaars’ & Hampden-Turner’s, 1998; House’s et al., 2004) were designed to analyze national culture constructs. Lacking more relevant theory on professional culture at the profession macro-level, applying these dimensions to professional culture is helpful to understanding the phenomenon, but caution should be taken when making generalizations. Empirical research is needed to directly examine how national culture and professional culture interact at the micro-, meso-, and macro- levels.
The results of this essay are useful on a number of levels. From an individual perspective (micro-), banking professionals from the US and Scotland should be aware of the professional culture they operate within in order to optimize performance and satisfaction. From a strategic HRD perspective (meso-level), banks in the US and Scotland need to consider professional culture when hiring or assigning professional banking staff in multi-cultural assignments. From a societal perspective (macro-level), professional associations, university business education programs, and professional trainers need to address aspects of culture when preparing individuals for positions in the banking profession.
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