Globalization has led to an upswing in cross-cultural working collaborations, be it between business clients or work colleagues. Additionally, the global labour market now mandates many managers to seek talent across cultures and borders, with some teams only working remotely. While this has led to fantastic innovations, business expansions and invaluable working relationships, the speed with which internationalisation and globalisation has happened means that employees may be unprepared to deal with colleagues and clients from other cultures. A lack of awareness of cultural differences, whether minute or glaringly obvious, can make or break a working relationship or potential business deal.
Let’s look at an example. When an American comes into a meeting, they tend to want to spend five to ten minutes breaking the ice. Questions like, “How was your weekend?” or “How about that Cubs game last night?” help them feel like they’re doing business with friends, which makes them feel at ease before diving into work. Germans, on the other hand, prefer to jump into the discussion right away so as not to waste valuable time, and find an excessive amount of small talk disingenuous and frustrating. Not knowing the difference between the two meeting styles can cause confusion and even offense.
Erin Meyer, and intercultural coach and the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business describes a client in her book who went to a performance review at the American company where she worked, wherein her boss needed to lecture her about her poor performance. But because Americans often begin with a lot of positive feedback (whereas the French give negative feedback quite directly, with the positive feedback being rather implicit) the French woman left the feedback session feeling proud of her performance; for her, the positive feedback overpowered the negative feedback. This story points to how vital it is to have a solid understanding of the cultural values and customs of the people you’re doing business with. Failing to adjust to and accommodate for the wide variety of cultural norms present in business today can alienate colleagues, make business deals go awry, and tarnish your company’s reputation.
So what should we do? Certainly we can’t all study the unique way every culture in the world does business and adapt. However, a little preparation and open mind can take you a long way. Here are a few tips for navigating cross-cultural business:
Before you plan a meeting with a potential client or an interview with a potential employee, take some time to do a little research about the culture. Explore the political environment or the historical perspective: does the country have a history as a capitalist or socialist culture? What are the prominent industries and how are they run? You might have heard the cliché that the Spanish or South Americans are often late, but is this true in a business context? Indian culture values hierarchies, while the Swedish tend to embrace a more egalitarian, collectivist structure — how might this impact their approach to business? The internet is a valuable resource that can provide you with a wealth of information from tourists to cultural experts on how to prepare for any intercultural working relationship. Do everyone the courtesy of being prepared.
Perhaps your client or colleague is being unusually quiet in a meeting, or is continually speaking out of turn. Perhaps you received feedback that felt particularly aggressive, or are uneasy with the collaborative approach of your new project management method. Instead of being defensive or passing judgement, give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Recognise that very direct feedback or lack of small talk might be part of the company or individual’s culture, and keep things in perspective. If your feelings have been hurt or you sense that something isn’t quite right, start a discussion, and most of all, keep an open mind.
Just because you’re all speaking English doesn’t mean you’re speaking the same language. You can often learn a lot from people by watching their body language or their responses to given information. Have they understood everything, or should you go back and clarify? Remember that part of any communication struggle could be due to the fact that English is not everyone’s native language. Doing business is hard enough, but when you have to think outside of your mother tongue, it can be even harder. Avoid idioms, and keep the communication simple so everyone can follow.
Maybe you’ve met a Polish person who behaves a certain way, and you glean from this that all Polish people have similar traits to this one person. But this likely isn’t true. We are all an amalgamation of our own personality and the cultural forces that shape us. Learn to tell the difference between someone’s unique personality and the values their culture holds.
A Chinese business associate may stay quiet for the majority of the meeting, waiting patiently for their turn to speak, whereas an Italian will probably talk at length, competing for the spotlight. Even when you’re not working in an intercultural environment, it’s common for some voices to drown out others. When facilitating a meeting among colleagues or negotiating a deal, make sure everyone has their turn to speak and make their voice heard.
If you’re not sure how something is done, just ask. Be aware that in certain Asian cultures, employees are encouraged to say that they understand something, even if they don’t. Be clear about your expectations, and make sure you are available for follow-up discussion to clarify information. Make it a priority to be concise in your message and facilitate a safe space to answer questions and correct mistakes if someone hasn’t understood or been understood.
When a company’s employees share a common set of values, this can go leaps and bounds in terms of uniting the organisation and helping its employees to transcend their culture’s borders. As Tsedal Neeley explains in the Harvard Business Review “If you feel a sense of belonging with the larger organization, you’re more likely to share its values and goals.” Likewise, when dealing with clients, a shared objective as to what your mission is what will allow your working relationship to transcend any cultural barriers.
Working across cultures can be an invaluable experience leading to professional and personal growth and lifelong collaborations, and even friendships. Remember, regardless of whether we’re from Finland or France, Spain or Saudi Arabia, we are all people who want to succeed in our professional lives and find meaningful working relationships with others. Keep in mind what unites us as business professionals. Learning about and embracing our differences will doubtlessly lead to successful partnerships, inside and outside the office.