One of the first major faux pas we make as ‘foreigners' is to assume that because we all speak the same language we will all understand what each other means
Things will get done even if not right now better to enjoy a fruitful discussion than cut it short for the sake of time
As an organization that is either working across multiple geographies or planning to work across multiple geographies it is critical to ensure you to have taken time to find out how your clients and your current or future employees work and operate.
“Surely if we just focused on what we were supposed to get done cultural difference shouldn’t and won’t make a difference to the way we work” Jim blurted out during a session on working across cultures between the UK and India recently. Of course, it is exactly such mindsets that make it all the more crucial to learn how to work across cultures.
Where someone from the UK may believe it does not matter the level of seniority of the person they are dealing with, that objective and task are more important than relationships. Vice versa someone from India may believe working with the right people at the right level and being able to build those relationships and trust is more important than working out specific tasks and objectives. It becomes easier to see why cross cultural dealings may not work out quite the way we intend them to.
As an organisation that either is working across multiple geographies or is planning to work across multiple geographies it is critical to ensure you have taken time to find out how your clients and your current or future employees work and operate. Finding answers to questions like: What motivates and rewards people? What are the determining criteria for “success”? What cultural gaffes are likely to occur? Should more emphasis be on relationships or tasks? What is the best way to communicate – verbally, through email, by phone?
So what are these cultural dimensions and how can they help you better run your cross cultural operations? There are many psychologists that have come up with different models one is Geert Hofstede who worked for IBM and did analysis on what was important to individuals, another was Edward T Hall and my personal favourite Fons Trompenaars a psychologist who worked on understanding cultural diversity in business, all well worth a read if you have several hours spare and are really interested in the topic. When time is short and understanding some of the essentials is important we can strip away most of what is written and just look at some of the key dimensions which cross various pieces of work by these great theorists.
Let us start with the very critical area of communication.
One of the first major faux pas we make as ‘foreigners’ is to assume that because we all speak the same language we will all understand what each other means. Travelling around the world to various English speaking countries it very quickly becomes apparent that this is not the case. As an Indian, try telling someone British to ‘pre-pone’ a meeting and see what blank stares or silence you get on the other end of the telephone a Brit will know how to post-pone a meeting, but surprisingly pre-pone never made its way into the vernacular language. A Brit may respond to their Indian colleague, in response to the question: ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not too bad’, in ‘Brit-speak’ that means they are doing extremely well, to the Indian counterpart it will mean they are not good at all and both parties may be surprised by the course the conversation follows thereafter. The Indian may also be left confused by ‘red-herrings’ (leading someone on a misguided route), ‘rounds’ (turn taking) and ‘cheers’ (thanks or goodbye). If a South African tells you they will give you something ‘just now’ all they have really told you is that at some point in future they will do it, in most countries ‘just now’ will mean in the next 5 minutes or so. If you think this has the potential to become confusing we have not even started on body language or proximity.
Key message: things are not always as they seem, when working across cultures delve deep to understand what the other person means and never rely on only one form of communication.
The Culture Dimensions
Before beginning it is important to remember that for every rule there are many exceptions, however we have tried to broadly sum up some of the group characteristics you may see.
Vijay (Indian), Geoffrey (Australian), Sue (British) and Jake (American) have been invited to a meeting. Jake arrives at 5 minutes to the hour, shortly followed on the hour by Sue and Geoff (as he likes to be called), Vijay arrives at 10 past. STOP: What has happened already? Firstly, we can see that time and the importance of ‘on time’ is different across cultures. There tend to be two main camps, camp one - sequential: those that schedule everything, queue, have deadlines and timelines for everything and do not believe it perceivable that someone could be late for something. As I am sure you can understand, if things ran over time it would completely destroy the rest of the carefully constructed schedule. Time means everything. Or camp number two - parallel: those that believe if you need to meet, meet - no need to schedule, if an important relationship is being built, why focus on the clock? Things will get done even if not right now better to enjoy a fruitful discussion than cut it short for the sake of time, and besides, you can always multi-task! Key message: what is important to you is not always important to others and vice versa, how important is time to the people you are working with?
Sue is talking about how lovely the weather is, Geoff has commented he finds it a bit cold. Jake has gone to make himself a cup of coffee. Vijay arrives and starts asking polite questions about whether Sue and Geoff are married and if they have children. STOP: The objective/task oriented cultures have started talking about external objective topics, ‘safe’ topics. The individualistic culture (US) is making coffee, and would feel no cultural need to necessarily make for others, he is not being rude. Vijay who is from a group oriented, relationship oriented culture is initiating ‘get to know you’ conversations so that he can start building relationships, workout where the people he is to work with come from and is potentially entering what Sue and Geoff may quickly begin to regard as ‘too personal’ topics of conversation. Key message: culture strongly determines what is polite, or too personal to ask on first establishing working relationships.
The meeting starts, Jake had circulated the agenda before the meeting, Sue has a copy of the agenda in front of her, Geoff has a diagram of main points on a note pad in front of him, Vijay is sitting confidently with no sign of paper or notes. Jake starts running through the agenda item by item. Geoff keeps jumping up to draw diagrams on the whiteboard. Vijay keeps asking if he can add a comment when Jake has already moved onto the next one. Sue is keen on the agenda moving forward and every time things start getting serious cracks a joke.
STOP: Jake and Sue are from universalist/task oriented cultures and want to move from item to item, their belief is that things should all follow a similar flow and structure. Because they are very sequentially time focused they feel they need to keep moving through the agenda so as not to run late. Vijay feels each particular situation needs a particular way of dealing with it and therefore is worth discussing other items that each agenda item may raise. He is also from a more parallel view of time and does not feel as pressured to finish each agenda item. He feels more comfortable letting others view their opinions first as he feels he is more junior to them. Geoff is task focused, but his focus is very much on the results and not the process and hence feels the need to summarise and conclude everything on the board. Sue is used to using humour throughout the day, in her culture this is seen as a way to break the stress and include everyone, her ironic and dry sense of humour is missed by some of the rest of the group and some think it is inappropriate given the stressful nature of the discussions.
Key message: Cross cultural interactions can be stressful and misinterpreted, it is important to set expectations and allow for breaks so that people can reflect on where others are coming from rather than react.
The meeting is finally over and the team believes they have agreed on a final solution. It has been a long stressful day. Sue suggests they call go for a drink, Geoff happily seconds that, Jake suggests they go out for dinner and Vijay invites everyone back to his house for dinner.
STOP: Whilst all cultures seem to socialise around either food or drink or both, the way we tend to do it can vary. Individualistic cultures tend to prefer to meet somewhere neutral where there are no further obligations, you can leave when you like and quite often it is easy to split the bill between everyone again not leading to feeling like you ‘owe’ anyone anything. Group cultures like the Indian culture, would often feel more comfortable bringing someone home as sharing is important and an honour and it would normally not be even considered that anyone would owe you anything in return for the hospitality. What Sue and Geoff have also not realised is that Vijay does not drink and feels very uncomfortable with the idea. Key message: being socially considerate can be misinterpreted, if someone has declined your offer it may be good to think why and come up with a solution that may suit everyone.
It is the next day, Vijay has spoken to the rest of his team in Mumbai and they have suggested a different solution to the problem after him discussing with them what happened at the meeting. Vijay has approached Jake and Sue and told them this. Jake and Sue are very surprised and Jake quickly tells Vijay that is not appropriate and the solution was agreed and that is that.
STOP: Vijay from the group oriented culture has spoken to the group. He never considered the solution was final, it was an agreed best solution at the meeting, but of course he would need to speak to his manager and peers before he could finalise the outcome. Jake and Sue from individualistic cultures were sent to decide on behalf of their teams and assumed that the meeting would result in a confirmed solution. Their teams and managers believe as long as Jake or Sue are sure they will support the solution decision. What none can see at this stage is that that if the solution fails Vijay’s group oriented manager would take the blame on behalf of the team for choosing the wrong solution, which is why it is necessary the manager is involved in the final decision. However if the solution fails or is a success, this risk lies solely with Jake and predominantly with Sue in their cultures. Jake could lose his job if it fails, if it fails for Vijay his likely worst consequence is that he will move projects as he has the group support of his manager. Jake comes from a direct culture and felt nothing of giving Vijay strong feedback about how he felt about the change. Vijay is from an indirect culture and probably felt fairly offended at Jake’s direct approach without taking time to understand.
Key message: decision making, recognition and failure is dealt with very differently across group or individualistic cultures, feedback approaches particularly with difficult messages varies greatly. This is important to bear in mind developing global performance management methodologies, sales incentive policies or negotiating internationally.
These are just a few examples of how as organisations we need to prepare our employees to work across cultures with other employees and with clients, we need to structure our work so that it is inclusive of different cultures and we need to ensure that any new ventures adequately take into consideration, the need for agreeing worth methods, supporting multiple means of communication, dealing with any issues and hearing both sides as they could have been caused by cross cultural misunderstandings and ensuring local knowledge is heavily sought when venturing into new lands or rolling out new corporate initiatives, policies or processes. The examples used are only a few of the many dimensions we find working across cultures and only a very few of the many implications on our corporate environment. If nothing else from this article, please take away the fact that we need to carefully consider culture in any corporate or human resources decision we make, as the outcome may not be as we expect, good intentions can become good failures, however consideration of cultures can lead to great successes.
Note:all names in this article are not the names of the actually individuals