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Intercultural Training: Internal vs External Control

As a second generation Northerner in the US, a lot of my family comes directly from the South.  My family, like many others, was part of the second Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the 1930’s – 1950’s.  One of my favorite memories growing up was talking to a great, great aunt from Alabama.  She spoke what many would call Creole English and it took a while for me to be able to understand her. When I did, I was immersed in stories and idioms I had never heard before in my cultured, Northern upbringing.  When talking about plans for the future, my aunt would say, “If God is willing and the creek don’t rise.” I used to think it was just something she said without thinking about it until I came across Fons Trompenaars’ Seven Dimensions of Culture with the dimension of Internal vs External Control. 
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Internal vs External Control

I know now that my aunt may have been acknowledging the potential impact of the unknown and uncontrollable on her plans. That acknowledgement was something new to me as a boy as I was used to hearing people simply say what they intended to do.  While some may say the acknowledgement of the unknown is implicit in all of our plans, I’m not so sure.  Cultures that value Internal Control tend to believe they can bend nature and the future to their will. An obstacle to what is desired doesn’t change the goal, only the way to achieve it.  Cultures that value External Control seek to live in harmony with the situation as it is rather than trying to fundamentally change reality. 

These two perspectives impact how we see many things including conflict.  For cultures valuing Internal Control, conflict is a natural part of fashioning situations as one wants them to be.  Understanding that there are different views of the future can lead to preparing for dealing with conflict, either directly or indirectly. For cultures valuing External Control, conflict is a sign of doing something wrong since conflict is the opposite of harmony. Doing something right can mean doing it without conflict.  This can have many implications in our general approach to saving face with others, how we approach and employ technology, and our willingness to change our ways of life in response to external forces.

In the business world

In business, the process of leading the market to a new product or technology versus responding to market needs is a key expression of the Internal vs External Control dilemma. Trompenaars suggests reconciliation may be found in anticipating market needs by being sensitive to the current needs of the market and what may influence the market in the future.  This may include marketing efforts, “If God is willing and the creek don’t rise.”

The focus on reconciliation is why Target Training integrates Trompenaars Hampden-Turner’s experience and research into our solutions.  Through reconciliation, clients will find better solutions to the intercultural  problems they face.  Target Training is a licensed supplier of  Trompenaars-Hampden-Turner’s  Intercultural Awareness Profile and Cultural Competence Online Products. Target Training provides intercultural training based on the Trompenaars’ Seven Dimension Model alone and as part of business communication skills training.

1 reply
  1. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    I think that this idea is important to remember not only regarding different cultural perspectives, but also regarding different personalities. The methods people use to solve problems vary greatly and can lead to conflict when they don’t match up with the methods used by others to solve the same problems. This can happen on a personal, cultural or team level and gives us insight into why communication sometimes breaks down or situations escalate. Thanks for sharing this thought provoking information, James!

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