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Cultural Differences at Work: A Q&A with Erin Meyer

Understanding small cultural nuances can have a huge impact on your business.

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When it comes to navigating cultural differences, professor Erin Meyer knows of what she speaks. After living and working on three continents—Africa, Europe and North America—she’s learned firsthand how complex cultural differences can affect global businesses, for better and for worse. In her book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs, 2014), she guides business leaders through this often treacherous terrain. She’s currently an affiliate professor of organizational behavior at the international business school INSEAD outside Paris.

What are some of the ways that culture impacts business?

Subtle variations in communication patterns have a tremendous impact on how we understand each other and on how we manage human capital. If your British manager tells you something is “interesting,” does he really mean he doesn’t like it? Why do your Dutch co-workers feel so comfortable talking back to the boss? Many of these differences—such as when to speak or stay quiet, the role of the leader, and what kind of feedback is most useful—may seem small, but if you don’t understand them, they can lead to ineffective teams, demotivated employees and a frustrated workforce. From an HR perspective, it’s important to teach leaders how to adapt their style when managing populations from around the world.

What are some strategies for managing multicultural teams?

On global teams, cultural differences often impact collaboration in unseen and unnoticed ways. For example, in the U.S., we have a tendency at the end of a meeting to recap what has been decided and to put it in a memo. To Americans, that’s just good business. But in many countries, that’s not true at all. A client from Indonesia told me, “If you and I make decisions verbally during a phone call, that’s enough for me. If you get off the phone and write down everything we’ve decided, that’s a clear sign that you don’t trust me.” So the American doesn’t know it, but his action created a negative impression which impacts the trust on the team.

The best managers have a solid grasp of these subtle cultural biases. They know how to help their team members adapt at key moments, but also to clearly communicate the systems that the team will use to operate effectively. If you don’t set that framework, you’re in for a lot of misunderstanding and frustration.

What should HR know about giving feedback to multicultural workers?

What is constructive feedback in one culture may be quite destructive in another. In countries like Russia and France, people give positive feedback more implicitly and negative feedback more directly than in the U.S., while Americans tend to tell others what they’re doing well before bringing up something negative. To many Europeans, this American style of wrapping negative messages in positives seems false and confusing. On the other hand, in cultures that value indirect negative feedback—including many emerging markets such as Brazil, Southeast Asia and many Middle Eastern cultures—Americans come off as way too blunt. So we have to recognize the importance of giving frank feedback in the Netherlands and gentle comments in Thailand.

What are some cultural traps that apply to HR?

Some HR systems don’t work well in other countries. For example, 360-degree feedback isn’t a good idea in Nigeria, which is a hierarchical culture where there is extreme respect for authority.

Diversity issues dealing with race, gender and sexual orientation, of course, differ greatly from one country to another, and they must be adapted to the local culture.

Another trap is managing the rollout of initiatives, like a company’s mission and vision statement or corporate diversity efforts. HR and senior leadership need to be really careful that these are not a reflection of the headquarters country’s own preferences. Include people from other parts of the world in the discussion early on. You can’t just push out these programs from headquarters and think they will be effective around the world.

What about dealing with people from more-confrontational cultures?

Be very careful when adapting your style to a culture that is more direct with confrontation, such as the French or Germans. You must have a solid grasp of the line between acceptable debate and inappropriate attack. Don’t try to mimic a confrontational style that is not natural to you, because you might not get the tone just right.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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