Know Your Global Workforce

By John Scorza Jun 28, 2015
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LAS VEGAS—If you work for a Swiss company that is looking to expand its operations internationally, you might not think of Japan as fertile ground. On first glance, after all, the two cultures seem radically different. But look more closely, and you’ll discover that workers in these countries share some important workplace cultural traits.

Understanding global workplace cultures is becoming more important as the world undergoes globalization at hyperspeed. There were an estimated 27,000 multinational corporations in 1980, according to the World Trade Organization. By 2015, that number has soared to 128,000. Against that backdrop, multinational companies need to understand the cultural norms of the teams they manage in other countries, said Donal Conn, leader of “Working Globally: Managing Talent Across Countries,” a June 27, 2015, preconference workshop at the Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition. Conn has more than 20 years of experience in global talent development and heads the consulting company Donal Conn Associates.

It’s human nature to gravitate toward people who are like us. HR professionals are not immune to that bias, and it affects how HR operates on several fronts, from hiring to succession planning to promoting, Conn said. You’re not going to change your own cultural background, so the key is to transcend cultural biases in a manner consistent with—or at least neutral to—local norms, he said. You have to understand at least some basic dimensions of the cultures you’re working with.

To develop that understanding, Conn turns to the eight dimensions of culture that are most relevant to the workplace. Under a system developed by the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Research Project, countries are ranked in each of the eight dimensions—including the degree to which their workplace cultures value teamwork, performance measurements, assertiveness and certainty, among other things.

For instance, China’s highly collective culture encourages people to be loyal to groups and to make decisions based on what’s best for the group. The U.S., on the other hand, has a highly individualistic culture that encourages people to take care of themselves and speak out for their own self-protection. Conn stressed that these dimensions are not black and white for any culture. “It’s a dichotomy—it’s a scale,” he said, adding, “There’s not a right or wrong. They’re just different.”

For HR professionals working internationally, these cultural dimensions matter. Take workplace performance. Cultures around the world define performance very differently. Countries such as Singapore, the U.S. and the Netherlands, for example, put a high premium on performance metrics. Other countries, such as Italy, Russia and Greece, may value social and family time over performance.

When cultural differences between multinational teams are significant, HR has its work cut out for it. For instance, HR will have to explain the big picture to workers in countries that do not stress performance metrics, pointing out how their work helps the entire organization attain its goals, Conn said. “There has to be a lot of internal communication to get everybody to understand your desired outcome,” Conn said. And when the cultural values of diverse global teams cannot be bridged, policies may need to be developed locally rather than handed down from headquarters. But to make that determination, HR first needs to know about the diverse cultural values of their global workers.

John Scorza is associate editor of Sections

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