Making culture work for global organizations – Part 1

Have you worked in a multicultural environment and thought- How can you equally build trust across teams in Moscow, Mumbai and Minnesota? How do you effectively deliver negative feedback in a cross-cultural team? What do you make of that half-shake, half-nod of the head in the video call? Do you assume that team participants who don’t speak up in team meetings are shy, reserved and not forthright? Is there a productive way to disagree? And the overarching question – does the cultural background of your teams have a role to play in any of the above?

We are conditioned to view others through our own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge accordingly. Being able to identify and respect some of those differences is critical and is first step to working in multicultural teams. Today, if we function in a global environment, our preconceived notions of cultural understanding must be challenged. Because today, more than ever, cultural awareness is proving a crucial skill, at all levels of the organization. And to eventually get to understanding individuals, we may want to start with trying to understand their culture. It will help us recognize our blind spots, change our perceptions and better shape our understanding of the work world. 

Why study culture?

At the outset, we may feel that all humans are fundamentally the same with common physiological and psychological needs. Yet the culture in which we grow up influences our communication patterns, the way we negotiate, disagree, argue, confront, make decisions etc. With the rise of globalization, it is critical to shift our focus from solving individual personality differences to a higher plane of decoding cultural perspectives lest we continue to work in such global settings under the perception that all controversy and misunderstanding is rooted in personality alone.

More often than not, we attribute the collaborative tension within teams to personal traits than cultural working styles. “We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society” – Alan W. Watts.

Our national culture being stronger than our organizational culture, it is important to understand these concepts in order to effectively navigate the cultural minefield. That way, we do not allow these cultural differences to separate us but leverage its strength for the benefit of all. Especially in times of stress and conflict, we are more likely and prone to react based on the culture that’s deeply rooted within us. We are naturally prone to default to what’s ingrained in us and we allow it to drive our thoughts, words and deeds. “

Scales of evaluating culture

“Whether we work in Düsseldorf or Dubai, Brasília or Beijing, New York or New Delhi, we are all part of a global network. This is true in the office or at a meeting, and it is true virtually, when we connect via e-mail, video conference, Skype, or phone. Today success depends on the ability to navigate the wild variations in the ways people from different societies think, lead, and get things done. By sidestepping common stereotypes and learning to decode the behavior of other cultures along all the scales, we can avoid giving (and taking!) offense and better capitalize on the strengths of increased diversity.“~ Erin Meyer

In her book Culture Map, Erin Meyer has identified eight pivotal problem areas in business marked by cultural disparities. Her work details themes and recommendations to improve relationships in global teams by evaluating where you and your colleagues fall on each of these scales:

  • Communicating: explicit vs. implicit
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: deductive vs. inductive
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top down
  • Trusting: task vs. relationship
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: structured vs. flexible

Conclusion

Every individual is different. And when we work with people from other cultures, making assumptions about individual traits based on cultural stereotypes may not be appropriate. But that does not imply that learning cultural aspects is insignificant. Certain aspects of interactions between team members are simply a result of personality and certain others are a result of differences in cultural perspective. As important as our respect for individual differences is our understanding and appreciation for cultural differences. This is key to the success of any business that relies on a global multicultural team setting.

In Part 2, we will discuss practical steps to map this cultural diversity and put it to good use. Stay Tuned!

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