"The more things change, the more they stay the same," - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
This is an era of strange ironies. One on hand you have an established global economic order founded on the free flow of information, people and trade and on the other hand, a growing trend of protectionism with rising trade wars and jingoistic nationalism. However, one thing stays the same – good talent is appreciated everywhere.
In a globalized environment, a talented professional must not only possess “hard” skills but should also have high Emotional Quotient (EQ) and demonstrate empathy. Deep “vertical” knowledge or domain expertise must be accompanied by the ability to manage a diverse group of individuals. Being in cosmopolitan Singapore amplifies that need as we are at the crossroad of Asia, replete with an extremely diverse group of people from all over the globe. An eclectic melting pot of work cultures, Singapore is a truly exciting place to work in if you are a professional/manager.
As a healthcare IT company that rapidly set up its presence in the US, Middle East, China, India, and ANZ, it is amazing to see how different cultural backgrounds result in differing outcomes. There are many lessons we learned in the process albeit after making several mistakes. Each organization has to come up with its own secret sauce but I would like to share a few ideas from my experience. Do remember that sometimes there are no absolute right answers and one has to make mistakes to get it right eventually.
Different cultures, differing work ethics
In my view, there are basically two main factors that constitute the source of all conflicts, misaligned expectations and vastly different outcomes: the ability to say “NO” and respect for elders or higher powers. Here are some examples of issues that people face when transplanted into another work culture.
Respect for age & hierarchy: In some cultures, there is a need for a lot of support – some call it being prescriptive. For example, many Asians have been told that older people are wiser, so “don’t question…just listen to them”. As a result, not many strive to think, or will never say “NO” to the boss and constantly await instruction/orders from above. This creates a huge problem for a manager raised in a Westernised style or management culture. The manager doesn’t know what to do and worse, might end up judging the team member as being incompetent.
Dependence versus independence: Western societies are taught to “DIY”. Teenagers leave the house after high school and pretty much learn to look after themselves. Compare this with Asians, Middle Easterns or Africans – who live with their parents sometimes throughout their lives in a joint family. With that mindset at the workplace, the office becomes an extension of the family at home, as do the expectations from colleagues. This sets up a fundamentally different expectation of “family in the office” or the colleagues that they work with.
Team versus individualism: Some cultures, like in Japan, emphasize teamwork over an individual’s effort. Decision making by consensus overrules any individual’s attempt to push things faster. This means that if you have a “diva” or a “rockstar” kind of team member, that person will seldom succeed in such an environment.
Destiny: Some societies, for example in the Middle East believe a lot more in the adage “if it is destined, it will happen”. This often leads to slower decision making within organizations. Let’s say, a salesperson dealing with prospects from that part of the world could inadvertently be perceived as lacking urgency in critical situations. However, often times this may not be true and one has to be consciously aware of the cultural nuance when conducting reviews with the staff. Mostly, they cannot do much beyond a point in ensuring outcomes.
So, we have to manage individuals whose traits are either “wait for instructions, wait for the team or do it myself” depending on the culture or the geography that they come from. If a manager does not understand this, lacks empathy or is downright unaccepting of the surrounding culture, the results are almost, always, disastrous. Similarly culturally transplanting someone into a new geography needs to be carefully undertaken. More of it later.
Staying true to business values
If you want to set up a trans-national, regional or a global business, uncompromising steadfastness and consistency in business values become the key ingredient that makes the difference between a roaring success and an abject failure.
For example, we take a lot of pains to emphasize our Singaporean identity and our way of doing “clean” business. This usually translates into “No shortcuts and No compromise on quality”. If we are at fault, we just accept it and set it right. However, for these values to be institutionalized and internalized in business units thousands of miles away becomes very difficult if a “Singaporean” practitioner doesn’t lead the way. The bitter lesson we learned is that it is better not to start a business if you cannot find someone to carry your values and be a living practitioner every day in that territory. Sometimes that meant that we had to depute someone to a new geography from the mother ship. However as I cautioned above, cultural transplants have to be carefully curated. The person going over to a new geography must have the highest level of EQ and discernment in applying the interventions in a culturally appropriate manner at all times.
In conclusion, I would suggest that one should think of defining and fostering the organization’s culture even before taking the first steps. Define what that culture needs to be and consequently the ‘value systems & framework’ that define such a culture. How does that translate into everyday behavior and actions? What are the appropriate ways in which such values should be implemented? Use that as a framework and drive it ad nauseum through both the HR function and the business head.