How many times have you wondered whether the person you were talking with really grasped the meaning of your message as well as its intent? What was your response? Did you summarize your point again with the hope that this time they would get your message? Do you look for validation that you’ve been heard correctly? What does it mean when people just politely listen, say nothing, and gently nod their heads while you speak? The answer? It depends on the environment in which the person was culturized.
In this globally-based workforce with intertwined business relationships, the most effective and successful leaders will be culturally savvy. They will first understand their culture, the culture of those with whom they work, and adjust their style with specific strategies to bridge these cultural gaps. Although technology will continue to be an important element shaping the business landscape, those who understand how to successfully influence people across cultures will be valued and highly sought after by companies.
Early in my career, I experienced firsthand being part of American business teams who left negotiations with Asian companies, either questioning how well the meeting went or being overly confident in the outcome based on their own cultural lenses. Only when we returned home did we learn we hadn’t made as much progress as we thought. How can a team or even an experienced business person successfully navigate these international waters?
The answer lies in reading the treasure map of cultural behaviors, which Erin Meyer spoke about at the 2016 Global Leadership Summit (GLS) at Willow Creek Church. Meyer (2014) has studied business cultures and seen “the sad truth…that the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work” (Meyer, 2014, p. 10). Meyer concludes that without cultural literacy your default position will be to judge or misjudge others through your own cultural lens and assume that differences, controversy, and misunderstandings are rooted in individual personalities. The truth? Cultural patterns of belief and behavior frequently impact our perceptions, cognitions, and actions (Meyer, 2014). In her book The Culture Map, Meyer defines the eight scales that map the world’s cultures and their location on the continuum.
- Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
- Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
- Persuading: principles-first vs. application-first
- Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
- Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
- Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
- Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
- Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible time
Today we no longer fly to another country to experience different cultures, because diversity sits in the office next door. You may be an American supervisor of an ethnically diverse group whose style reflects the United States Culture Map. Believing in treating everyone equally, you may be left confused when trying to coach each of your team members who come from China, Japan, Asia, and Europe. You may wonder whether your coaching is making any impact outside of your circle of American colleagues. Your coaching style is likely straightforward with specific concrete examples (low-context) to back up your feedback couched with soft qualifiers (slightly indirect feedback). You probably sandwich negative feedback between two positives. Your Dutch subordinate expects direct feedback, so he may likely misinterpret the degree and importance of your message as he expects you to be straight forward with any negative criticism. You may feel frustrated at his lack of effort and progress in affecting change. Perhaps, you may even start to stereotype Dutch behaviors based on repeated experiences with that ethnic culture. It’s not uncommon for people to routinely experience a clash or misunderstanding of cultures. If we learn about culture, suspend judgment, and build bridges between these cultures to facilitate trust, communication, and ideas, we would harness the potential of every team member.
Giving and receiving negative feedback is a necessary component of business but sometimes riddled with insecurity for both the giver and receiver. How should constructive criticism be given and taken? How should feedback be delivered to get the best result? How much feedback is lost in translation? How do the words absolutely, strongly, kind of, and sort of play out when delivering criticism? The answer depends on the culturalization of the giver and receiver. Certain phrases and qualifiers have different meanings. Take for example a British colleague providing feedback to his Dutch counterpart. He says, “Please think about that some more,” implying “That’s a bad idea.” A Dutch or German colleague, who expects and is comfortable with direct negative feedback, would likely interpret that as “It’s a good idea. Keep developing it.”
In business etiquette classes, we are instructed on the ceremonies which demonstrate respect. In Japanese business culture, it’s customary to exchange small gifts with visitors and present a business card with both hands towards the receiver who respectfully reads it upon presentation versus immediately putting it into his portfolio. Americans easily embrace these cultural mannerisms but fail to realize how communication and language may be used differently.
Frequently in my coaching practice, I reference scales ranging from 1 to 10. Regardless of the attribute measured, when an issue between two people is greater than 2 units apart anywhere on this scale, the two parties will need concentrated effort to resolve their differences. Meyer (2014) confirms my informal conclusion when she states that “what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures” (p. 22). Relative positioning determines how people will view each other.
Meyer’s (2014) first piece of advice when interacting with someone from another culture is to “listen before you speak and learn before you act” (p. 27). Understand how culture will impact the conversation. For example, the United States is the lowest context culture with Japan having the highest context in its communication. In simplest terms, the people culturized in America tend to communicate literally and explicitly. They value clarity and place accountability of the intended message on the communicator to accurately convey the meaning of the message (Meyer, 2014). On the other extreme, Asian cultures often convey messages implicitly which requires the listener to read between the lines. Good communication is layered and subtle, and the responsibility of its accurate transmission is shared between the sender and receiver. The Japanese have been culturalized over many generations to become skilled at “reading the atmosphere.”
I find it humorous that education can further exacerbate the cultural divide, by moving people more towards the extreme version of their dominant culture. Highly educated Americans are taught and encouraged to communicate more effectively in writing and orally and to take more responsibility for the messages they send. American leaders are typically rewarded for having and implementing the answers within their organizations. On the other hand, Japanese leaders are listening more to what is meant as opposed to what is said. In my informal survey of American and Japanese business people attending a meeting, I find that at least 75% of the words spoken are by the Americans and 25% by the Japanese. The Japanese typically spend more time reflecting and reading body language and other non-verbal clues. When they do speak it typically includes more clarifying questions. Many times, my American colleagues have misinterpreted the meaning of a nod, assuming their Japanese counterparts are in agreement. In truth, head nodding is more confirmation of being heard.
In decades past, businesses have been helped by having teams take the Myers Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) and participate in team-building exercises to understand how team members prefer to communicate, process ideas, handle data, and make decisions. These business teams were more homogenized in culture, but today’s global business environment demands everyone to be equipped with a new set of skills that embrace diversity in the workplace. Meyer (2014) delves deeper into communication and evaluating than what I can do justice and also takes the reader through a journey to explore other important cultural attributes. Understanding, respecting, and working with the deep roots of various cultures will forge and strengthen relationships and performance. Culturally diverse teams will continue to populate the business landscape and every leader would benefit from learning more about cultural diversity and its impact on business success.
Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. New York, NY: Published Affairs. ISBN: 978-1-61039-250-1.
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business and life coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership. She partners with clients to help them develop and grow successful businesses. She also works with individuals to create their life plans and build better relationships by identifying and living out their personal values, enhancing their skills and competencies, and holding them accountable to execute their defined goals. Sandra welcomes comments, questions, and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.