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Cultural differences and effective communication for better business outcomes

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Increasing reliance on working globally while communicating in the virtual space breeds complacency to cultural differences that can affect business outcomes. Erin Meyer’s new book explains how to avoid such pitfalls.

“Today, we might be managing a team in China, or selling our products in Brazil, or we might have suppliers in India,” says Erin Meyer. For the INSEAD professor, who is an expert in multiculturalism in the business space, this creates a set of challenges that might have seemed less common two decades ago, but are becoming part of the standard model for the engineering manager. We still need to achieve our objectives, she says, but the problem is that as we deal with more colleagues from different cultural backgrounds, the essential building blocks of communication – such as building trust, decision making and the dissemination of feedback – “work differently from one country to another. Most people who are working internationally have little in the way of tools to enable them to understand these differences and subsequently manage effectively across them.”

The premise of ‘The Culture Map’ is to offer a method of decoding business interactions that “happen differently in different parts of the world”. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the surface-level etiquette – although that remains important – of how to present the business card to your Japanese counterpart on meeting for the first time. “We’re talking about how to adapt your style in order to reach your strategic goal.”

So what, I ask Meyer, are the biggest mistakes engineering managers make when, ensconced in their own culture, they are required to operate in multinational markets. Meyer reinforces the earlier point: “Normally it is the assumption that issues such as how to address our colleagues by name are important, while ignoring the more subtle differences that we might not be aware of.” By way of example she cites the British executive who is outsourcing to a company in India and experiencing prolonged communication difficulties. Common practice in the UK, she explains, is after a successful meeting to go back to your desk and fire off a detailed file note encapsulating the top line points of agreement. “Now that’s just good business in the UK. But in India, at the end of a phone call where agreements have been made, that is usually enough to go ahead.” She recalls vividly in the course of her research talking to an Indian manager who said that if you then rush off and write it all down, “that is a clear indication you don’t trust me”. This may seem a small point, but Meyer points out that, despite the agreement, the relationship is now lop-sided, and with that comes the threat of putting the negotiation in jeopardy.

While once we might have been able to decode our differences more instinctively face-to-face, today we are more likely to take what we might consider to be the advantage of dealing with overseas colleagues from the comfort of our desk via the portfolio of digital options available. But this, according to Meyer, has a tendency to deepen the problem. While it is true that we can now make huge savings on the travel budget by relying on video conferencing, “one of the things I find is that people have the assumption that communication is becoming easier and that we are becoming more sophisticated”.

This is a false assumption, says Meyer, because without direct meetings you find yourself without the visual cues required to get a deeper understanding of what is going on. “You might live in a small town, you get up in the morning and you are emailing people in a part of the world that you’ve never even been to. You telephone people in far-off regions. And so you make all sorts of implicit blunders without anyone noticing.” What this means is that, as commerce becomes more globalised and our methods of interaction more localised, “understanding these issues becomes more complicated than when we were getting on planes to work together”.

We may think that we are used to complex trans-cultural linguistic differences, but as Meyer strongly implies, we are probably deluding ourselves here, too. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of ‘negative feedback’, which is a recurrent thread in the fabric of ‘The Culture Map’. “Even when we are working with people from our own countries, when we need to provide criticism we have already entered a danger zone.” Expressing negative feedback in the wrong way is a sure-fire way of damaging a relationship, hurting people’s feelings and ultimately failing to reach a common goal – “which is why we try to work within the realm of constructive feedback”. Where this gets complicated is that “expressing these views is so different from one culture to another”.

Meyer goes on to say that in the Netherlands the most valuable feedback is the most straight-shooting. “It is appropriate in the Netherlands, even in front of a big group of people, to provide strong negative feedback.” Apparently, no one even objects to intensifying adjectives (Meyer calls them ‘upgraders’) such as ‘totally’ or ‘incredibly’. Yet, she continues, in other cultures (especially in the UK) we tend to use a lot of ‘downgraders’. We’re all well aware of what such expressions as ‘you might want to possibly consider’, or even the lamentable ‘do you know what would make that even more brilliant?’ really mean.

For Meyer, in a world where disclosure of opinion ranges from the unambiguous to the euphemistic, this can appear to be confusing. “What we do over here in America that is so confusing, is to give so much positive feedback.” She explains that in the USA, if you want to effectively say that something is sub-par, you can only do so after explaining how positive, brilliant and dynamic it is. “Now, if you are from a different culture and you haven’t been trained to recognise this, you can go away with some very mixed signals.”

The message from Erin’s illuminating essay on cultural differences in the world of business is essentially that we all do things differently. If we are unable to meet face-to-face, then we should at least prepare ourselves for the fact that while people do things differently that doesn’t mean they have different objectives. The next time you’re flying off to foreign lands on business you might want to read ‘The Culture Map’ on the plane.

‘The Culture Map’ by Erin Meyer is published by PublicAffairs, £10.99

We read it for you

It makes no difference whether you work in a head office in Britain or a satellite organisation overseas, business success in our globalised and virtual world requires the skills to navigate through cultural idiosyncrasies.

In her new book ‘The Culture Map’, INSEAD professor Erin Meyer guides the reader through this subtle and at times treacherous terrain, where people from starkly different backgrounds are expected to work harmoniously together and yet routinely get it wrong, with far-reaching effects for their business strategy.

In the UK we might feel that we have the advantage of English being the universal business language, but this tends to make us complacent about those cultural minefields that can sink deals. If you think that this doesn’t apply to you, then you might be the very person who needs to read ‘The Culture Map’.

Extract: The Culture Map

Whether we are aware of it or not, subtle differences in communication patterns and the complex variations in what is considered good business or common sense from one country to another have a tremendous impact on how we understand one another, and ultimately on how we get the job done. Many of these cultural differences – varying attitudes concerning when best to speak or stay quiet, the role of the leader in the room, and what kind of negative feedback is the most constructive – may seem small. But if you are unaware of the differences and unarmed with strategies for managing them effectively, they can derail your team meetings, demotivate your employees, frustrate your foreign suppliers, and in dozens of other ways make it much more difficult to achieve your goals.

Today, whether we work in Dusseldorf, New York or New Delhi, we are all part of a global network (real or virtual, physical or electronic) where success requires navigating through wildly different cultural realities. Unless we know how to decode other cultures and avoid easy-to-fall-into cultural traps, we are easy prey to misunderstanding, needless conflict, and ultimate failure.

Millions of people work in global settings while viewing everything from their own cultural perspectives and assuming that all differences, controversy, and misunderstanding are rooted in personality. This is not due to laziness. Many people don’t educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that if they focus on individual differences that will be enough.

Edited extract from ‘The Culture Map’ by Erin Meyer, reproduced with permission


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