Why we need to understand the cultural differences within our global teams to become better leaders.
"Two years of transformation within two months."
Was how Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, summarised the impact on business during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Satya was being interviewed on the Future of Remote Work on how Microsoft responded during the unprecedented times brought about by the global pandemic.
Organisations like Microsoft, with robust cultures built over many years, inspired their people to rally around their values and contributed to their success in navigating the pandemic and servicing their clients and broader communities.
Yet, the typical advice within enduring organisations for how to successfully lead and manage globally distributed teams in this new world largely remains unchanged. This means the executives and busy professionals working within organisations are easy prey to misunderstanding, unnecessary conflict, derailed careers, and failed projects.
And that advice is missing one fundamental point - the elephant in the room. In today's increasingly distributed and global workforce, we are all part of systems that require navigating wildly different cultural norms that arise in different countries:
with which we do business,
where our clients are based,
where our suppliers are based,
or a multi-cultural team split across different time zones that are working on an urgent project.
Different cultures and cultural subtleties impact our communication. Specifically:
What we see
What we think
What we do
"The sad truth is that the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work."
- Erin Meyer (author The Culture Map)
This is especially true as more and more of us communicate daily with people in other countries over email, telephone, and various messaging or video platforms such as Zoom or Teams.
The Eight Scales that Map The Worlds Cultures
In her book The Culture Map, author Erin Meyer describes eight scales that map the world's cultures:
Communicating: low-context versus high-context
Evaluating: direct negative feedback versus indirect negative feedback
Persuading: principles first versus applications first
Leading: Egalitarian versus hierarchical
Deciding: consensual versus top-down
Trusting: task-based versus relationship-based
Disagreeing: confrontational versus avoids confrontation
Scheduling: linear-time versus flexible time
As the author says, "If your business success relies on your ability to work successfully with people from around the world, you need to have an appreciation for cultural differences as well as respect for individual differences. Both are essential."
Let's use my profile to explain the eight different scales, what they mean and, more importantly, why you as a busy professional should care. The TL/DNR is that by recognising the different cultural factors at work, we can analyse people's different behaviours and then apply strategies to solve behavioural and relationship problems.
I am from the UK. I have previously worked for US firms for over twenty years and lived in New York for several years. Using the country mapping tool, I received the report below - the eight scales represent continuums, and it is the relative positioning between two countries that is most important.
Communicating scale - I am a very low context communicator. This means I am explicit. I'm not too fond of ambiguity and will often summarise agreements or actions in writing after a meeting.
The American anthropologist Edward T Hall introduced a distinction between two types of communication culture: high context and low context.
In a low-context culture, communication is explicit and direct. What people say is taken to be an expression of their thoughts and feelings. You don't need to understand the context to understand the message.
A high-context culture is one in which little is said explicitly, and most of the message is implied. The meaning of each message resides not so much in the words themselves as in the shared context. Communication is subtle, and the message may be ambiguous or missed entirely by someone from a low-context culture.
Contrast my low-context approach with someone from a high-context culture such as France. In France, a good business communicator will use second-degree, implied communication in everyday life. While giving a presentation, a manager may say one thing that has an explicit meaning everyone understands. But those who have some shared context may also receive a second-degree message that is the real intended meaning. This approach is alien to me, and I don't know why anyone would do that. With my increased understanding and awareness of the different approaches, I can flex my style and seek clarification if needed.
Evaluating - I am happy being frank and direct when giving negative feedback. You know where you stand regarding unsatisfactory performance and are not left unclear about the required development. This means I need to be extra sensitive when interacting with people from cultures at the indirect negative feedback end of the scale, such as India or Japan. I need to adapt my approach to be more subtle and diplomatic, using qualifying descriptors to downgrade the message. We British are masters at this - evidently, I am not.
Leading - I am happy operating in an egalitarian or top-down hierarchical environment when making decisions. That said, a team full of typical Dutch or Danish members who are extreme egalitarian's, which means they are highly likely to disagree openly with the boss, may take some adapting to.
Deciding - I am more towards the consensual end of the decision scale. This won't be too much of a surprise as my default leadership style is that of coaching. I prefer to seek opinions and input from subject matter experts and seek diverse points of view. That approach might come across as ineffective or even incompetent if I operated somewhere like Russia, where the decision making responsibility lies with the boss.
Trusting - You gain my trust through shared working experience on the job, delivering on spec, on time and on budget. I am less focused on building a business relationship with someone over dinner and outside of work hours -> I, therefore, need to understand that people from countries like China approach this differently.
Disagreeing - I am comfortable with confrontation, standing up for myself, fighting my team's corner and holding people accountable even if they don't want to be. I can separate the decision from the relationship and be willing to take a short-term popularity loss for a long-term gain in respect.
Scheduling - I dislike being late. Being on time and turning up when I say I am going to is important to me. So, for example, an Italian Head of Sales that I used to work with who was rarely on time for his own meetings used to drive me up the wall. That is until I realised he wasn't doing it on purpose. The Italians are an example of a P-time culture (polychronic) with a flexible approach to time. Many things are dealt with at once, and interruptions are accepted. My rigid system wasn't going to work, so I have to adapt and take a more flexible approach to schedule and time management with that crucial stakeholder.
Persuading - I like a mix of theoretical concepts and practical examples to explain new concepts and ideas. I can get to the point and stick with it when presenting to Londoners or New Yorkers. However, when explaining things to French, Spanish or Germans, I am comfortable explaining the background and thought process, which options were considered, before jumping to the recommendation or conclusion.
The relative gap between the two countries represented by your team is what matters, not the absolute position of either culture on the scale. Having this awareness and then being flexible and adaptive in your approach is the crucial capability to develop.
3 things you should do better to understand the cultural differences within your global team and become a better leader
I hope that this quick review of my profile versus different countries was helpful. You can create your profile here 👉 https://erinmeyer.com/tools/, and I highly recommend that you do.
But how to make the best use of this new insight? One of my favourite quotes is by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Wishing is not enough; we must do."
- Goethe (1749-1832)
So here are three actionable tips to increase your effectiveness and be a better leader for your global teams:
1 - Shared knowledge increases the number of common reference points within a team, building a shared language that improves mutual understanding and reduces the risk of unnecessary conflict. Use the culture map and the eight scales as a powerful team bonding exercise. Taking time to discuss how your team will communicate will help remove the guesswork, aid with more quickly establishing trust, increase the bonding of the people you work with, and avoid many painful, costly faux pas.
2 - Effective teamwork and collaboration are more critical now than ever before. Whether working remotely or not, knowledge workers often find themselves working in temporary teams, often at short notice to solve cross-functional issues or adaptive challenges.
Share your culture map profile with your team and consider writing a "working with me manual", also called a "user manual". The shared knowledge will improve communication, help set clear expectations, and share the best ways to interact and get the best work from you.
3 - Leadership is about behaviour. It is no surprise that one of the essential skills of today's most influential leaders is that of being a coaching leader. Asking questions is at the heart of coaching, as it's essential for raising awareness and increasing understanding. When interacting with someone from another culture, try to listen more and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act. Listen to understand, not respond. What are they not saying, as well as what they are saying?
A core element of the coaching style of leadership is to ask powerful questions that usually start with what, where, when, who, how. For example, ask for clarification if you are a low-context person engaging with a person from a high-context culture. Explain what you are doing and why you are doing it to avoid misunderstandings.
In today's global business environment, it is not enough to be aware of different leadership styles or ways of doing things. For effective cross-cultural collaboration and leadership, we need to develop the flexibility to manage up and down the eight cultural scales to get the most from our people and develop high performing teams.
If you want to discover more about effective teamwork, check out:
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