The Treasure Map in Navigating Business Cultures


How many times have you wondered whether the person you were talking with understood the meaning of your message as well as its intent?  If you sometimes question your effectiveness in communicating your message to an individual or group, what was your response?  Do you typically attempt to summarize your point again, hoping the second time they would get it?  Do you look for validation that you have been heard correctly?  What did it mean if they just politely listened and said nothing or instead gently nodded their head while you spoke?  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 demonstrate the ability to adjust their style with specific strategies to bridge these cultural gaps.  Although technology will continue to be an important element shaping the business landscape and growing profits, 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 Asia 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 to the United States did we learn that we had not made as much progress as thought.  How can a team or even an experienced and talented business person successfully navigate these international waters?

culture-map-book-coverThe 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 (2014) 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 right 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 Eurograph-us-culture-mappe.   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 is 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.”

culture-map-tableIn business etiquette classes, we are instructed on the ceremonies which demonstrate respect.  In Japanese business culture, it is 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, I find when an issue between two people is greater than 2 units apart anywhere on a 1-10 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) (www.myersbriggs.org) 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.

Reference

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 sandra.s.dillon@hotmail.com.

The Scarlet Letter “F”


In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional setting of Boston in 1642, a woman named Hester Prynne must stand for three hours on a public scaffold wearing the scarlet “A” on her dress.  For what purpose?  So that she could be publicly shamed and humiliated for adultery!  For those not familiar with the classic novel The Scarlet Letter, adultery was against the law of the land and church but also an unforgivable sin whose sentence lived on until death.  Fast forward 375 years when adultery does not carry the same legal or societal stigma and where most surveys reveal that it is more common for husbands and wives to cheat than not over the course of their marriages.

Perhaps because adultery is so common, we have put the Scarlet “A” back into our pocket and now sew on a Scarlet “F”, as in felony, on every shirt lapel leaving prison.  Oh, we may not be as obvious about it in this politically sensitive world, but how we treat ex-felons, who have served time for their crime, speaks volume in what we think of these men and women.  Through our laws, community policies/practices and personal actions we have labeled these released prisoners (a.k.a. felons) with “F” as in “Failure.”   Did you know that when a prisoner is released from prison he gets the clothes on his back, $50, and a bus ticket to anywhere?  What is he supposed to do with those resources for his first night’s lodging and food?  Let’s get real.  What do you think happens next?  With no support he will likely connect with old friends who will help him back into illegal activity to put food in his mouth and a roof over his head.  And so the cycle begins again!  Statistics show that 50% of felons return to prison after 3 years and 75% after 5 years.  These are just the felons who get caught.  Why are these statistics so surprising?  They shouldn’t be.

What are the hurdles for the felons who want to legally re-integrate into community?  Well, he has difficulty finding a place to live, because he doesn’t own a home.  He can’t live in an apartment complex, because management discriminates against all felons regardless of the crime, and probably, he can’t stay with relatives where he has worn out his welcome long before his prison sentence.  He can’t get a job, because he doesn’t have any decent clothes for an interview, but if he Sandi 1 Class 27did, when he checked the felony box on the application he is immediately disqualified.  What would you do?  I expect you are saying to yourself, “Well, he shouldn’t have gotten himself involved in crime to begin with?” Honestly, there is a part of me that wants to sympathize with that statement, but the other part of me knows a different story.  My other half will suggest that the difference between you and an ex-felon can be the simple fact of just getting caught.  How many times have you had one too many drinks, been legally intoxicated, and yet chose to drive home?  For those who made it home safely, we breathe a sigh of relief—no one was hurt or killed.  If you didn’t make it home, you might be in prison for intoxicated manslaughter.

So, you may think, “I see your point; it could have been me, but it wasn’t. Felons are not my problem.”  My reply is, “If you live in this country, it is your problem, because incarceration affects each and every one of us.”  Did you know the average annual cost to hold an inmate exceeds $30,000?  Did you know the real cost to the taxpayer is multiples of that when you factor in lost tax revenue on wages, welfare and aid given to families of incarcerated men, and damages from crime.  For those who are killed or harmed during a criminal act, I cannot put an estimate to the value of life and limb, but at a minimum, lost wages, funeral expenses, and medical bills could be tallied in the total cost.

So what can be done about this problem?  Well, the solution is not by any means easy or short-lived, but we can start by building awareness of the issue, investing in effective transformational programs, and crushing the felon stereotype.   The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP, http://www.pep.org) is giving prisoners the opportunity to change their lives for the betterment of their families and communities.  PEP sees the value of these incarcerated men, and along with other business volunteers, they all come along side those prisoners who are doing the hard work to transform themselves.  This program initially focuses on building authentic manhood and servant leadership and follows with building skills and training in business entrepreneurship.  When program graduates are released from prison, they have access to transitional living and support to help integrate back into society.  Over the past 3 years I have been an executive PEP volunteer and have seen transformed lives and returned dignity in the men we serve.

On April 1, 2016 I honorably participated in a kickoff session for another PEP class who were entering the authentic manhood segment of the program.  Today I received a batch of photos with thank you cards from those men with whom I had the privilege of spending the day in prison.  Yes, they teach these men how to write handwritten thank you cards, a much appreciated and overlook form of business etiquette.  When you see how hard these men work for their future, you can’t help but be inspired to partner with them in their walk.  If yoThank you cardu were wondering whether this program works, recidivism is < 7% after 3 years for those graduating from this program. For the fifth consecutive year 100% of the graduates secured their first job within 90 days.  Since PEP’s launch in 2010, 211 businesses were started with 6 businesses now generating over $1 million/year revenue.  That’s not failure—that spells S-U-C-C-E-S-S!

PEP is a non-profit organization operating only through donations and no government financial assistance.  The local Texas state correctional facilities welcome this program, because it works!  We can only hope that one day, the federal and state governments may fund and incorporate these concepts into the prison system as a whole.  You may not be in a position to volunteer your time or talents or to donate to this worthwhile program, but you can change the way you think about a felon.  You can start to break the felony stigma. Don’t rush to pin the “F” letter on a felon’s collar.  Ask questions.  Learn his story.  Offer support in a meaningful way.  Even the act of listening and empathizing shows compassion and can make one feel valued as a human being.  Like every one of us who has made a mistake, we hope to be judged not for who we were but for who we are actively working to be!  Embrace the PEP Revolution!


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She now coaches others in how to develop and execute their life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.