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  • Joanna

Working across cultures - A book recommendation

A key area of focus with my clients is taking time to understand ourselves and others to be able to appreciate our relative differences and how it can impact communication, performance and leadership. This can be useful if trying to influence across borders as well as if you are a leader trying to motivate your teams within a culture. In this blog I’ll tackle the cross-cultural element. I’ll come back later to our individual differences.

Culture clash

I’ve been lucky to have lived in 5 countries and worked with people from many more, I’ve loved the varied experiences and friendships that this has given me. I have always tried to be open and curious and learn to adapt to other’s styles. I take it as a compliment when I’m told “I’m not that British”. I have benefitted from local colleagues helping me understand why people react in different ways and have adapted my style to be more effective. However, I have experienced many times when things just don’t seem to be landing well when we are seemingly speaking the same language or tools I have used in the past don’t seem as effective in a new environment.

For example, the idea of an open forum for all levels with senior management to raise any issues works well in London, where people are willing to raise ideas and complaints when given such a platform. In fact sometimes it’s hard to end the sessions once they get started! In Shanghai, however, you may get met with deathly silence. It’s not that people don’t have ideas or concerns, it’s just not the right forum to encourage them to raise them, to give negative feedback publicly to more senior colleagues. In this case I adjusted my style to having smaller discussions over coffee on more specific topics that people would then start opening up or asking for anonymous submissions ahead of time to discuss. I learned from my Chinese boss on better ways to open questions that got conversations flowing.

I have just read Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map and wish I had read this at the start of my international career! I was slightly skeptical of whether a book such as this could avoid stereotyping cultures but have been impressed by her approach that highlights the importance of our relative positioning that is key and how we are conditioned by our culture and upbringing on what we see as normal. She has built her knowledge as a professor at INSEAD working with students from around the world who have helped validate her work. She points out that it is only when you are taken out of your home environment that you come to appreciate how your “culture” leads your approach.

She clearly sets out 8 different dimensions of cultural difference that can help you adapt your style to be more effective with people who come from a different culture to you. For example, how is feedback given, how are decisions made and how is trust built. She highlights where there are differences along these dimensions that many of us might find unexpected. I had already experienced many of the differences she mentions but reading the book brought several a-ha moments of better appreciation and a reflection that I could have made more of an effort to adapt if I’d taken this into more conscious consideration. She encourages awareness as the most important step to help with understanding and reduce frustrations, along with tips on how and when adapting your approach can work well.

Her explanation on how different cultures disagree definitely resonated as I remembered a negotiation for a Chinese acquisition of an Israeli company. The Chinese buyers were looking somewhat uncomfortable as the Israeli lawyers seemed to shout animatedly at each other in Hebrew. My Israeli colleague assured me that it was all usual and part of the negotiation process. We completed the deal successfully but looking back it was a good demonstration of some of the dimensions discussed in the book.

I’d highly recommend a read to anyone who works with colleagues, clients or suppliers around the world and wants to be more effective. Of course there are still differences between individuals and taking time to understand those in your team is key but there is a lot of useful insight in this book.

I’ve got a project in the pipeline that will bring this to life with interviews with people who have lived and learned the hard way how to be successful in different cultures. Stay tuned….

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