The global and virtual nature of business today means good communication is critical. Yet cultural differences can sometimes lead to misunderstanding or confusion. So how can we work effectively with colleagues in this new global marketplace? Author of The Culture Map and INSEAD Professor, Erin Meyer, tackled this very topic at the inaugural GEO Communications Forum in London. The masterclass was attended by more than 80 people from across the share plan industry, and focused on how managers can build more cohesive and successful teams. Erin illustrated her masterclass with a framework that allows organisations to plot cultural differences across a sliding scale of seven different dimensions. Below is a graph to demonstrate these dimensions and how different countries’ cultures sit across them. “As globalization transforms the way we work, we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers, and colleagues from around the world. This is one of the greatest management challenges of the coming decades. It is also fascinating,” says Erin. “The range of human cultures can be a source of endless surprise and discovery – a fount of remarkable experiences and continual learning that can never be exhausted.”
Visit Erin’s website to identify your cultural profile and access useful tools.
1. Communicating: Low- and high-context cultures
High context cultures believe that good communication is sophisticated and complex, and holds several layers of meaning and nuance. Low context cultures believe that good communication is clear, simple and explicit; they take words at face value.
A Japanese colleague from a high-context culture may feel his American counterpart is condescending. The American, from a low-context culture, is just trying to communicate clearly and may think that his Japanese colleague is disinterested. When communicating across these two cultures, feelings of dissatisfaction can occur. Awareness of these cultural differences means that you can mitigate them.
2. Evaluating: Direct and indirect negative feedback
Direct cultures give negative feedback in a clear, frank manner. They believe that honesty, clarity and efficiency are key when providing criticism. Indirect cultures give negative feedback in a soft, diplomatic manner. They try to soften the critical message by surrounding it with positive ones.
An American boss told a French employee she needed to make improvements, but with all the positive messages the French employee understood this to mean she was doing a great job. To avoid confusion, look at the way people behave around you on a day-to-day basis.
3. Leading: Egalitarian or hierarchical
Hierarchical cultures show a great deal of deference to authority. They appreciate clear instructions from leaders and believe good employees are loyal. Egalitarian cultures show less deference to authority. They are comfortable openly disagreeing with the boss and believe good leaders empower employees. To avoid confusion, when you begin working with people always ask them what the best approach is for them and their teams.
4. Deciding: Consensual or top-down
Consensual decision making cultures make decisions in groups, investing necessary time to ensure that everyone is in agreement, which results in a slow but steady process. Top-down cultures give bosses the power to make decisions for groups, which results in quick decisions but ones that can change over the course of their implementation. In business, the top-down approach is often beneficial as at allows for more flexibility later in the process, but it will not be appealing to the risk-averse consensual cultures. A way to mitigate this difference in approach is to explicitly discuss and agree upon a decision-making method during the early stages of collaboration.
5. Trusting: Relationship-oriented or task-oriented
In relationship-oriented cultures, people take the time to build long-lasting relationships with colleagues and clients. They believe in this bond and that loyalty is key to success in business. In task-oriented cultures, people build casual, short-term relationships to get jobs done. It is important to know who you are dealing with and take the time to build relationships in ways best suiting different people and situations.
6. Disagreeing: Confrontational or Avoids Confrontation
Some cultures are more confrontational than others in sharing their views about disagreement. Those who are confrontational often share their criticisms openly and without emotion. They feel they are sharing information for the benefit of the group discussion, not for personal reasons. Non-confrontational cultures may find this approach highly insulting or rude and will possibly go to lengths to maintain group harmony and not disagree publicly. To manage disagreements across a mixed group of cultures, it can be a good technique to disassociate ideas from individuals by putting examples on a board and discussing the ideas.
7. Persuading: Inductive or deductive style
An inductive-style group has an ‘application first’ nature, for example they approach discussions in a practical manner and generally avoid theoretical discussions. A deductive-style group has a ‘principles-first’ approach. They are trained to develop a theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement or opinion.
When a German gave a presentation to US colleagues, he spent a lot of time preparing and presenting all his research before concluding his actions, but his American colleagues looked distracted. They would have liked the point to come first and explanation later, and so lost their attention and felt disappointed that he was not engaging. The key here is in the flow of communication for different audiences; make sure your audience knows what is coming.
Here’s what the Equatex team who attended the event learned from the day:
1. Communication is vital in all aspects of life, but never more so when dealing with people globally – which, of course, is very common in today’s business world.
2. Know where you fit into the global scale of communication, so you can understand how you are perceived and adapt your style or technique to suit your audience.
3. Think about how your audience will understand your communications, otherwise it will be heard but unheeded.
4. You can still be authentic whilst also adapting your communications techniques for your audience.
5. Small cultural gaps between us can matter more as they often go unnoticed until they cause a problem.
6. Globalisation means that high context cultures can struggle, yet markets are moving to Asia so we’ll likely end up in the middle ground between high- and low-context cultures.
7. Spending time with colleagues can be the most beneficial way to overcoming communications barriers.
8. The most important aspect of communication in business is not that you get it right 100% of the time but that you try.