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When Company & Country Cultures Clash

· Culture,Leadership

“Most of my important lessons about life have come from recognizing how others from a different culture view things.” Edgar H. Schein

Last time I wrote about Can I be friends with my staff? . That post received a bunch of comments and questions. Today’s post is inspired by Htet Aung who wrote:

Great article - thanks Andrew! Working in Myanmar for the last couple of years, I see some managers having very close friendship with team members and of course some favoritism or unfairness towards others / organization. But does the local culture play a part here?

The easy answer is, Yes.

Everything we do and perceive at work is colored, filtered and intermediated by our cultural experiences and environment: the culture of the location we are working in and the company we are working in are particularly strong in this regard.

The two cultures can come into conflict in global organizations. Large global organizations easily become blind to cultural differences. It’s an aspect of Headquarters Syndrome: it works here, where the important people are, so it must work everywhere. When you roll out global, standardized initiatives and projects, you know it’s naïve to assume that the global writ will run automatically. It’s equally naïve to arrive in an overseas posting and expect everyone to behave like they were in HQ. Peter Drucker told us that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. It eats projects, communications and standard operating procedures just as easily.

The norms of one culture may indicate a certain behavior is acceptable, the norms of another culture may indicate the opposite. As the leader, you have to make the boundaries clear. Your organization has determined global standards of behavior. Some of them can flex with local cultures, others will be non-negotiable. So when you see that a feature of the company’s culture is in conflict with the local culture, what will you do?

Example: Feedback

Most global organizations value and positively promote giving feedback. They create formal processes like evaluations and encourage timely, informal feedback to help employees become self-aware and learn more quickly. Employees are expected to behave accordingly: requesting and offering direct feedback about others’ behaviors. Managers are expected to give developmental feedback: identifying behaviors that are not helpful in certain situations as well as positive, affirming feedback.

When global organizations roll out new feedback initiatives in Asia, I have seen the imported values and behaviors behind the feedback culture fail and even do damage in the organisations they are expected to improve. It collides with the country culture.

Some locaal cultures are very comfortable with giving direct feedback about personal behavior. For other cultures this is an alien practice; considered hurtful, harmful or inappropriately personal. So what will you say when one of your managers avoids giving feedback because she does not want to risk her staff losing face? “You chose to join our company. We value feedback in our company, so please give feedback to your staff.” Is that good enough? Is that what you will say?

Her concerns are coming from the best of intentions. She has learnt how to be successful in her culture. So be humble. Take off the HQ uniform and focus on purpose.

You may be more successful if you listen, appreciate her local knowledge, concerns and intentions in speaking up, and empathize. Then make your positive case for compliance “Here’s why we value feedback and why we do so much of it here.” “Here’s an example…” “That’s why I and all of us in our company request and offer feedback by identifying behaviors and perceived impacts…” Be clear about what is non-negotiable and work together on how to use the flexible parts of the program to make it work locally. The introductory communication is usually the best chance to do this: frame your initiative in the local culture and be clear about the global purpose – most important, show ownership:“I believe in it and do it”.

To return to the question of friendship behaviors, the same principle applies. When your organization does not accept favoritism, unfairness, competing loyalties etc., then as a leader you should keep the boundaries in place. Identify the specific behaviors and show why you will not tolerate them by demonstrating the corrosive impact they can have. Don’t make a comparison with the business’s home national culture. It’s about your organization’s culture wherever in the world it does business.

If you are implicitly criticizing aspects of the local culture, don’t expect your audience to get it. You must spell out what is not acceptable and, again, why. Appreciate the aspects of the local culture that are not compromised and be flexible where you can. Celebrate valuable local behaviors that are labeled as friendship and be clinically clear about the boundary: the red-line that delineates the behaviors that may be labeled friendship here that are not tolerated in your organization.

How do you prepare for working in a new national culture?

How can you anticipate culture clashes? How can you prepare yourself and consider new behaviors for working in a new culture? How can you preempt what colleagues from foreign cultures will face when they arrive and how you can support them?

Your awareness of yourself and your environment are always available to you. You can get ahead of your arrival by looking at the cultural dynamics you may encounter. There are some useful lenses for analyzing cultures of place:

  • Trompenaars & Hampden, Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global
  • Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind
  • Meyer, The Culture Map

I like The Culture Map because the language used is accessible and relatable to the working experience. Meyer assesses cultures along eight dimensions, where managers of different cultures have rated themselves on the dimensions of: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing & Scheduling. At ErinMeyer.com she also provides a self-assessment tool.

Take a look at the website and familiarize yourself with the eight dimensions. I’d advise any leader or manager who works across national cultures to explore this model and try the self-assessment for yourself. Then plot out your own preferences against those of the national cultures you are working in or with. What aha! moments did you have? What will you do differently tomorrow? What new advice will you give?

How can Meyer’s eight dimensions inform our discussion of friendship at work? They are all worth considering. Let’s look at three:

Communication

Meyer plots national cultures from low context, where the words contain the message to high context, where communication depends on reading between the lines. Therefore, close relationships play a bigger part in communication in high context cultures. There you already have an intimate understanding: a shared language, jargon, network, knowledge and day-to-day experience. It’s much easier to be referential when you share the same context. How much context do you need when you communicate?

Evaluating

This scale relates to how direct or indirect is the preference for delivering challenging one-to-one feedback. The difference illustrated in the Feedback example above. How do friends give feedback in your culture? Are they direct or do they soften the blow, obfuscate or avoid?

Trusting

Meyer presents Trust as a spectrum between task-based and relationship-based trust. Leaders operating in cultures where belationship-based trust is the norm have to consistently communicate and enforce the boundary between the positive results of close relationships and where they can become a risk to the organization. Where do you draw the line?

So, what will you do the next time your company and country cultures clash?

Andrew Jones is an Executive Coach and Career Counselor. Please contact Andrew directly to learn more about this topic or subscribe below to hear more from Andrew in the future.

A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. We live and breathe through it. Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner

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