Insights For Success

Strategy, Innovation, Leadership and Security

Managing cultural differences

Hiring, ManagementEdward KiledjianComment

Note: My series on conversational hypnosis is not yet complete but I decided to change the topic a little to ensure I cater to my different readers.

I have spent the better part of the last 10 years managing larger organizations with international footprints. The allure of cheaper labour costs has been too strong to ignore for most organizations. For most, this is a new experience and most are ill-equipped to handle the cultural changes that come with this type of expansion.

In my previous article about Conversational Hypnosis, I emphasized the importance of belief. It colors your perception of the world and how you react to it. Culture is a key driver to belief. If culture defines part of your belief and belief defines your actions/reactions then it is safe to assume that it plays a key role in how employees manage their business dealings.

Understanding belief and culture
I won’t rehash my discussion about belief here (I strongly recommend you read my previous articles about Conversational Hypnosis). I do want to stress how important it is to understand different belief systems and to think about how they are impacted by culture. In its simplest form, culture is how a group of people socialises their citizens. It defines how members of this group interact with each other, how they interact with outsiders, how they handle challenges and what they hold dear.

Most organizations I join are not equipped to handle the challenges of international, differing cultures. Some simply don’t know how to handle it and others don’t realize its importance. Let me be crystal clear, if you want to run an efficient and optimized international operation, you must understand how to manage the different international cultures you are embedded with (in the countries you operate in).

An example to clearly illustrate cultural difference can be seen between the American work ethic and that of an area of France called Nice. I once managed a team split between both regions and the differences were striking. In North America, many of us define ourselves by our jobs, our corporate rank, our salary and the quality of work we produce. My team in Nice saw work as a necessary evil. They produced quality work but without the feeling of great urgency. Many Americans live to work whereas my Niceois employees worked to live. Take a minute to think about how these different mindsets created by culture affect their work? How would each of these groups handle work packages? How would you manage each of these different groups? How would you motivate them?

30,000-foot Overview
I do want to share with you some of the very high level issues to consider when thinking about international culture. These cultural particularities should be the basis of every international decision and plan. Think about them when planing meetings/trips, understanding the role of management, reception of corporate rules, the role of headquarters, etc.

The Rules of engagement
In North America, we run our organizations on rules and restrictions. We want rules to avoid creating dangerous precedents or allowing a person to make a decision that can jeopardize the business.

In many parts of the world, their first priority is the inter-personal relationship. Their decisions are always analysed to ensure it protects and nurtures these relationships [even if it means ignoring some of the rules.]

This is a situation when even a mid-level compromise approach may not be optimal. The ideal outcome is a synergistic approach which protects both beliefs.

I, the individual will be victorious
From my very first day at my very first job, I had an insatiable drive to outperform. Most North Americans see the business world as them against the machine. Everything is structured to measure the individual, coach the individual, reward the individual or punish the individual.

Imagine the shock when you realize not all cultures share this value. Whereas in North America we see policy and procedure as a mechanism to help the individual, some cultures believe the individual is there to help the group.

In recent years, we are starting to see a shift in the North American mentality. Walk into any bookstore and you will be overwhelmed by the number of books that offer advice on building efficient teams. We are moving to a team culture without necessarily giving up on the individual. We are naturally moving to a reconciliatory mindset where each individual contributes to the overall success of the team and at the same time the team contributes to the development of the individual.

As a manager, learn the techniques for building efficient teams. Identify the strengths of each of your team members and leverage these strengths to build the best team possible. Then, determine how the team can help the career development of its members (either internally or leveraging other teams in the organization).

Unemotional management
Does emotion have a place in business? My experience says no. For the longest time, I learned and believed that business is business. I was told not to take it personally and that business decisions should be made without emotion.

Some cultures privilege just the opposite. They believe that emotions have a place in business and actually encourage it.

Read my previous articles about “Conversational Hypnosis” and “How to build Rapport”. Of particular interest to this discussion are the mechanisms of non-verbal communication. I won’t discuss it here (since it was already covered in great length) but be cognisant that it plays a crucial role as most of the communication we do is non-verbal and this is how we share emotions.

I first fell victim to this when I was negotiating a billion dollar plus deal and realized my “opponents” had a different rule-book about emotions in the workplace. Whereas I had the proverbial poker face, they were freely expressing their inner most emotions and beliefs to me. At first I thought they were nuts. Why were they giving me this insight. Didn’t they know I would use it to crush them? Until I understood how to handle this, we were at a stalemate. Only when my local staff explained this cultural difference were we able to make real progress and close the deal.

There is no magic formula here. Know that this difference exists and think about how you will handle it in your particular situation.

Activity Management
Do you see time as a sequence of events where the previous action affects the next one in line? Or do you see the past and the future as as related and inextricably linked?

This may seem like a strange question but religious influence can be seen here. In Christian-influenced culture, we often see the former. We break down our calendar years as Before Christ and After Christ. Cause and effect. A series of actions which influence each other in a series leading to a given endpoint.

Other cultures see the past and the present as inextricably linked. Think of Buddhism. Everything simultaneously impacts each other. The past impacts the future and the future impacts the past (one way to make sense of this is to liken it to the concept of reincarnation or continuous flow of energy). They do not see the past as affecting the future but as everything affecting everything else at the same time, which inevitably molds their present.

Esoteric theory aside, this cultural facet influences how people see and execute work tasks. The former prefer to do work linearly (one at a time) while the later take a more multi-task (simultaneous) approach.

Hierarchy or bust
I mentioned in one of the previous sections that the new North American management mantra is to flatten the organization as much as possible. Managers have an open door policy and every employee (regardless of position or rank) is encouraged to contribute and can talk to anyone else. In most organizations, the janitor can book  a meeting with the CEO.

Conversely, many cultures have an absolute adherence to corporate rank. They see the chain of command as absolute and would never consider “breaching” this unwritten rule.

Understand how your target region reacts to hierarchy. If you are managing a group that adhered to the latter belief and you organize an all hands on deck town hall, what kind of interaction do you think you’ll get? In North America, it is now common for senior executives to meet the employees directly in town hall style meetings (where managers are specifically excluded). This is seen as a way to improve corporate communication. This would backfire in some regions of the world.

A customer called me in because they had transferred their help desk services to India and was disappointed with its performance. Management was “frustrated because the help desk seemed unable to perform some key functions which were appropriately performed when it was onshore.”

They knew little about Indian culture and unfortunately didn’t care to learn about it. In this particular case, the employees believed that hierarchical placement in the organization was important. They did not feel it was their place to challenge their management to let them know that they were missing “key tools to do their job”. They attempted to the the best they could with what they had, which obviously frustrated their management and lead to harsh actions (layoffs which lead to lower morale; a belief that the head office did not care about the group, etc). The solution was simple. I simply walked through the requirements and ensured the agents had the required tools. I spent time with them to fine-tune everything and in a matter of 3-4 months, the situation had become a polar opposite. They went from not performing to being the models of efficiency and dedication. The only tool I used was an awareness of the cultural difference.  

Preparing your team for international assignments  

If you have read this entry until here, you have some interest in the cultural differences and may be asking yourself how to properly prepare your team to tackle this challenge. There is no magic formula that works for everyone but some helpful ideas (that my international customers have used) include:  

  • Cultural briefing: Have people familiar with the region conduct one-on-one workshops talking about everything from the geography and political reality to business etiquette. I believe a workshop format is best for this as interaction is key. If you do conduct this in groups, keep them small.  
  • Study: There is no replacement for self-education. The person or group should be given books on the region, travel guides, etc. Time spent studying will yield incredible payback.
  • Language training: If the target region has a language that is easy to learn then having a basic ability to communicate should be the goal (example North American learning Spanish). If the person is headed to a region where the language is more difficult (e.g. Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindu, etc) then the goal of this training is to give them some very basic business setting sentences to “show good faith” People are much more open when they feel the other person made an effort. 
  • Scenario: I find role playing to be an excellent exercise. I usually like to conduct this with managers from the target region and I make sure the scenarios are based on real-life past experiences. Making the person live through past issues is a great experience building technique. This also provides an opportunity to test the person’s grasp of local business etiquette and cultural-sensitivity.

Recommended Reading

Hall, Edward T. "The Silent Language in Overseas Business." -

Hofstede, Geert H. “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: -

Kroeber, A.L., and Clyde Kluckhohn. “Culture; A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions”

Trompenaars, Alfons, and Charles Hampden-Turner. Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Global Business -