“What is a ‘summer Friday’ and why is no one picking up their phone?”
“They’re inefficient and we’re spending too much time fixing their mistakes.”
“What?! There is no coverage because they’re all having lunch together?!!”
These are common challenges we hear when training global managers at Fortune 500 companies. They are the same complaints I heard when I worked at a multinational manufacturing company where I interacted with executives at the corporate office in New York City, engaged with engineers in the New England R&D centers, and audited the factory floors in China. Working in these diverse settings, I gained a unique perspective on the “us vs. them” dilemma.
It’s not easy to work across cultures, but it’s a necessity. Firms adept at navigating culture to manage global teams successfully unlock new markets, access diverse talent, and gain 24-hour productivity. Companies that do it poorly or don’t do it at all demotivate and frustrate their employees and burn through their investments.
To work effectively globally, you want to start by acknowledging differences and being open. This is the first step because without an open mind, you won’t be able to connect with others across cultures.
Your standards and processes for work excellence were created through your specific cultural lens. They reflect your environment and a set of values from your culture. Although it makes complete sense to you in your context, it may not work well for another culture with a different set of values and beliefs.
In the United States, we tend to have an egalitarian view of the workplace. We feel comfortable contacting those several levels below or above our title as long as there is a good reason and it’s an efficient way to get things done. In Asia, employees tend to have a hierarchical view and strictly follow the chain of command. So if an American executive reaches out to a lower-level employee in the Asia office, the employee may not respond because the difference in level is too high. When forced to respond, the employee in Asia likely will copy his manager and other appropriate parties so they are in the loop on the matter.
The American executive doesn’t understand why the employee in Asia would involve so many people for something the two of them can manage. The employee in Asia, along with his manager, can’t understand why the American executive didn’t respect his peer in Asia and go through the proper channel. This type of misunderstanding happens all the time.
When you use your standards, which work well in your environment, to judge someone else’s action in another context, your judgment can be unfair and unhelpful.
Many times, you won’t realize you’re imposing your cultural norms inappropriately. Let phrases such as “that doesn’t make any sense,” “they’re so unprofessional,” or “why would anyone do that?” trigger you to pause and ask yourself:
“What standards am I holding others to and does it make sense in their context?”
What doesn’t make sense to you makes perfect sense to someone else. It’s your goal to find out why it makes sense to them.
How to Deepen Your Cultural Sensitivity
You can read several books to better understand cultural interactions and how they can lead to significant misunderstandings. I recommend the following:
- “When Cultures Collide” by Richard D. Lewis
- “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer
- “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” by Terri Morrison
Another great way to deepen your cultural sensitivity is to expose yourself to a specific culture by watching films and eating foods from that culture. If you live in a big city, take time to visit the various ethnic enclaves.
The last and best way to help you understand another culture’s “less effective” behaviors is to travel to and, if possible, work in that country. When you step into their environment, you see firsthand why their actions make sense and you begin to realize that no one comes to work wanting to be less effective.
Everyone is doing the best they can. It’s your job to find a way so you can all work more effectively.
Robert Chen is an executive coach who uses his science, business, and cross-cultural background to help technical leaders communicate with more impact and build better working relationships. He has worked with high-performing leaders in management consulting, banking and financial services, accounting and professional services, and academia. He works at Exec|Comm, a global communication skills consultancy, in the New York office.