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Decision-Making in Intercultural Education Organizations

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Application of the 12 Dimensions: Understanding how different cultures make decisions based on either Rules or Relationships

Rules-Based vs Relationship-Based

Decision-Making in Intercultural Education Organizations Decision-Making is the eighth of 12 Dimensions of Culture that KnowledgeWorkx ED uses to map out the intercultural terrain. If you haven't already, you should read our article introducing the 12 Dimensions here.


"Decision Making" is a significant dimension, governed by two opposite poles, that we call "Rules-based" decision making vs. "Relationship-based" decision making.

In rules-based decision making cultures the tendency is to stick to the rules. Context, relationship, the people in the room, and the people involved in the process is not that important.

In relationship-based decision-making cultures, rules serve the relationship. If the relationship is not served well any more by the rules, the tendency is to change them or just don't apply them for the particular instance involved.

Both Rules and Relationship-based decision making have abuse mechanisms. Inappropriate rules that are followed slavishly are inefficient at best, while bending rules to suit relationships can turn into corruption or other unethical behavior.

Rules vs. relationships: How it plays out in an international school

Most international schools developed in the cultural context of a host country high on rules based decision making, will have a behavior policy full of rules, a family handbook, staff handbook equally rules oriented. This is how the international school will be organized, with procedures based on the mission of the school, enforced by rules. A rules oriented person is going to find this normal and orderly and a necessary way to function at work. Everyone knows what is expected, how to behave and how to reward and enforce the behavior of others, namely students. Enter a relational oriented decision making staff member into the school…He or she may view these rules as guidelines.

When Matthias breaks a rule on the playground and his parents defend him, the relationship oriented person will respond with the rules in mind as well as considering the reputation of the family involved, the positioning of the father in the school, the relationships surrounding Matthias and Matthias’s story in detail. Rules will be a guideline and could possibly be followed unless something in the larger context of the situation becomes a pressing point. A rules oriented administrator would follow the rules regardless to keep consistent and fair treatment of all while a relationship oriented decision maker will automatically take more stock in the larger context, the relationships involved and possibly the power hierarchy and structures outside of the school.

Another example could be seen in the marketing department of an international school where little Johnny’s family comes in to register him for kindergarten and there isn't a place for him…until a family friend of very high social status calls the school to insist that Johnny have a place. The relationship oriented registrar in a relationship oriented environment could consider this as a natural way of making decisions. A social hierarchy and levels of influence would be considered. The probable culture clash occurs when Johnny’s family friend is denied being the exception to the rule from a rules oriented registrar. In a case where rules are followed without cultural sensitivity to this dimension, the relational oriented person who is rejected on account of a rule could likely be confused and offended.

On the other hand when decisions are made to admit a student based on an influential person or extenuating circumstance based on relationships, the rules oriented person can perceive the decision to be unjust, unfair, and confusing, not knowing when to follow the rules and when to make exceptions. Note that a relationships oriented decision maker would intuitively know when to make an exception to the rule while the rule oriented person would rather depend on a protocol to feel that their decision is correct and “right”.

How international schools fair in the host country they are embedded in has everything to do with how they navigate this dimension. Deciding what it means to be internationally minded with this dimension in mind and how that aspect of the school’s culture is communicated will help alleviate some of these misunderstandings. Knowing in advance that these offenses will come, helps a staff be steps ahead with strategies and culturally relevant explanations.

In an intercultural environment, you need a healthy tension between rules-based decision-making and relationship-based decision-making in order to be successful as an organization. Navigating these polarities in an international school is exactly what we at KnowledgeWorkx ED want to see modeled for the future global leaders of the world. We can’t expect students to gain these valuable insights and adapt to these realities if we aren't intentional about instilling these competencies in their leadership development.

If you want to measure where people in your organization fall on the Relationship-based/Rules-based continuum, contact us and find out more about the Cultural Mapping Inventory and the 12 Dimensions of Culture.

To begin your culture learning journey, Contact us or get our mini-ebook: Inter-Cultural Intelligence: from surviving to thriving in the global space.



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