Navigate Cultural Differences to Succeed Across Borders

A Q&A with renowned global business expert Erin Meyer

By Roy Maurer September 30, 2014

Professor Erin Meyer’s work has focused on decoding the complexities of cultural differences in multicultural business environments. Understanding those differences impacts global HR, cross-border teamwork and international assignment management. Meyer is an affiliate professor of organizational behavior, specializing in cross-cultural management at the international business school INSEAD outside Paris, France. She is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs, June 2014).

She sat down with SHRM Online to discuss how HR and business leaders can use her Culture Map tool to effectively manage global teams, and how to strengthen cross-cultural engagement. Finally, she highlighted the types of cultural traps that are likely to affect HR.

SHRM Online: What are some of the ways that culture impacts business and HR?

Meyer: As companies are globalizing, more and more people are working with colleagues who come from other countries. We all have to learn to be much better at decoding which behaviors are cultural and which behaviors are personal. Doing that requires a high level of flexibility.

From an HR perspective, helping people be effective leaders in a globalizing economy is both complex and important. Fifteen years ago, the Dutch were mostly only managing Dutch people, and Mexicans were managing Mexicans, and Americans were primarily managing Americans. In today’s globalized economy we have to learn how to adapt our style to be effective [when] managing populations from around the world. Subtle differences in communication patterns, and complex variations of what is considered good business from one country to another, have a tremendous impact on how we understand each other, and on how we manage human capital. Many of these differences, such as when to speak or stay quiet, the role of the leader, and what kind of negative feedback is the most useful, may seem small, but if you don’t understand them, it can lead to ineffective teams, demotivated employees and a frustrated workforce.

SHRM Online: How can poor cross-cultural competency negatively impact your workforce?

Meyer: The vast majority of managers working across borders and cultures have little understanding of how culture is impacting their work. But negative situations often arise because of it. For example, in the U.S. we have this tendency at the end of a meeting to recap what has been decided and then recap it again in a memo sent to participants. To Americans, that’s just a good business practice. The more you clarify, the more you put things in writing, the more professional. But in many countries, that’s not true at all. A client from Indonesia told me that “when we have a discussion and make decisions verbally, that’s enough for me. And if you put it in writing and send me what we discussed, that’s a clear sign that you don’t trust me.” So the American doesn’t know that he has offended the other person, but his action created a negative impression. That’s why the Culture Map is important: it allows you to consider what you’re doing in your daily interactions that may have an unintended negative impact on your employees or business partners in other countries.

SHRM Online: What is the Culture Map and how is it used?

Meyer: The Culture Map is eight dimensions, based on the types of behaviors that might occur throughout the workday. It considers, for example, what it means to be a good communicator; how trust is built differently in different parts of the world; how to be persuasive in different cultures; and how to make decisions or disagree without giving offense or causing harmful misunderstandings. On each of these scales, there are two extremes; countries are positioned up and down the scales, so you can see how two cultures fall in relationship to one another. The mapping process does not describe a culture. It doesn’t tell you that a culture “is like this or that.” Instead, it helps people working on global teams and managing overseas workforces to understand how two different cultures compare to one another. It’s the relative position between any two cultures that matters. For example, if we look at the “Evaluating” dimension, which ranks cultures that prefer direct negative feedback versus indirect negative feedback, we would see that the Chinese are towards the indirect side of the scale, but in comparison to the Japanese, they are very direct. So you need to consider the cultures’ relative positions.

As another example, an Israeli executive sets out to lead a team of Russian workers. He notices that his management style is not having a positive impact. If you map out how Israeli and Russian business cultures relate to one another, you see that both cultures value flexible scheduling over organized scheduling; both accept and appreciate open disagreement; and both approach issues of trust through relationships rather than tasks. But there’s a big gap in leadership style. Russians tend to prefer a hierarchical approach, while Israelis prefer an egalitarian style. Israel’s flat organizational management style may be ineffective in Russia’s strongly hierarchical environment.

SHRM Online: Are there significant regional similarities?

Meyer: Yes, on some scales. For example, on the “Communicating” dimensions from low-context to high-context, you can see regional breakdowns: Latin American and Asian cultures tend to be high-context, whereas Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to be low-context. But on other scales, those regional breakdowns are not apparent. For example, on the “Deciding” dimension, from consensual to top-down decision-making, the Japanese are very consensual, and Thailand is strongly top-down, breaking up the Asian cluster. It’s important for HR and multinationals to stop thinking “oh, those Europeans, or those Asians,” but to recognize in which ways those cultures cluster together and in which ways they are very different.

SHRM Online: What are some strategies for managing multicultural teams?

Meyer: First of all, don’t forget that global teams will not only have personal elements, but also cultural elements impacting the teamwork. When your team members come from around the world, knowing how to adapt to work well with each individual person is not enough. You have to set a common ground as to how the team will collaborate. The best managers understand cultural differences and know how to adapt at key moments but also 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 inefficiency and frustration. For example, if you have some members on your team who come from a culture where people invest significant time developing personal bonds on the team, such as sharing coffee and meals or speaking about their personal lives, and others who come from cultures who place high value on getting right down to the task, you need to guide the team to find a common ground. Perhaps you bring the team together for a first face-to-face and you can explain that the sole purpose of that meeting is to develop strong interpersonal relationships. For following phone meetings, you might regularly set the first five minutes as a time for a personal check-in before everyone gets down to task. Whatever the purpose of the team, the more you clarify how the team will collaborate, the easier it will be to bridge cultural divides.

SHRM Online: Let’s get into using your scales to develop effective strategies. What are some tips for getting global teams to disagree agreeably?

Meyer: With multicultural teams, getting all group members to express their ideas openly and comfortably can be a challenge. First, if you’re the boss, consider skipping the meeting. If you’re dealing with people from cultures that avoid confrontation, such as Japan, Thailand or Saudi Arabia, your seniority will impact others’ comfort in disagreeing with you openly. In many of these cultures, publicly disagreeing with a boss or elder is considered disrespectful. In many Asian cultures, the default purpose of a meeting is to put a formal stamp on a decision that has [already] been made before the meeting in informal pre-meetings. Allowing this advance preparation would help Asian team members feel more comfortable sharing comments. Another strategy is to depersonalize disagreement by separating ideas from the people proposing them. Instead of asking people to express their opinions, and to challenge one another’s ideas in a meeting, ask team members to send all their ideas to a nominated third party before the meeting. Have that person create a list of ideas without stating who had the suggestions. This way, participants can confront each idea during the meeting without confronting the person associated with it. Another good tip is to adjust your language, avoiding upgraders like “definitely” or “absolutely” and using downgraders such as “maybe,” “perhaps” and follow that with “What do you think?”

SHRM Online: What about dealing with people from more confrontational cultures?

Meyer: You have to be very careful when adapting your style to a culture that is more direct with confrontation, such as the French or Germans. You need to have a solid grasp of the line between acceptable debate and inappropriate attack. I do not recommend that you begin a meeting with French colleagues by saying “You are totally wrong.” Don’t try to mimic a confrontational style that is not natural to you, because you might not get the tone just right.

SHRM Online: What are some strategies for working with people from higher and lower context cultures?

Meyer: People from higher-context cultures read between the lines and speak implicitly, whereas people from lower-context cultures value being clear and explicit. The U.S. is the lowest-context culture in the world; there, people put a very strong emphasis on putting everything in writing. When you work with people from higher-context cultures, such as Asians, Latin Americans and Arabs, practice listening more carefully. Learn to listen to what is meant instead of what is said. This likely means reflecting more, asking clarifying questions and learning to pick up on implicit cues. When working with people from lower-context cultures, such as Canadians, Australians or Americans, be as clear and specific as possible. Explain exactly what you want. Assert your opinions. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.

SHRM Online: How can HR use the feedback scale to give constructive negative feedback?

Meyer: The negative feedback scale is really critical for HR. In many parts of the world, too much positive reinforcement can come off as being superficial. In France, people give positive feedback more implicitly, and negative feedback more directly, meaning that if the boss doesn’t say anything, that means you’re doing just fine, and if you have something negative to say, you say it more strongly than we would in the U.S. In the U.S., we tend to teach people the importance of telling others what they’re doing right, and giving three positives with every negative; the point is to build the employee’s confidence, and help them feel loyal and motivated. To many Europeans, this American style comes off as being false and confusing. On the other hand, in many cultures that value indirect negative feedback, including emerging markets such as Brazil, Southeast Asia, and many African and Middle Eastern cultures, Americans come off on the contrary as too blunt. So we have to recognize the importance in giving honest, frank feedback in the Netherlands and gentle, gradual feedback in Thailand.

SHRM Online: Tell me about the trust scale.

Meyer: It’s probably the most important one. If you don’t have trust, you can’t get anything done. If you have trust, the other scales are not as glaringly critical. If I have trust with you, and you speak to me in a manner I consider too direct, I can forgive you. But if I don’t trust you and you speak to me like that, that’s a deal-breaker. This is true in every part of the world. It’s how we come to feel trust that differs from one country to another. The scale distinguishes between two forms of trust: cognitive and affective. Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel for another’s behaviors, like if they come to work on time, do their work well, etc. Affective trust is emotional closeness, liking someone, feeling empathy for that person. Everyone has affective trust for people in their personal lives, but when it comes to work, countries that are task-oriented, like the U.S, emphasize cognitive trust, whereas in many countries, people rely much more heavily on affective trust. They are much more relationship-oriented.

Let me give you an example: I worked with an American company that was bidding for business in China. They traveled to China with a gorgeous presentation, they presented it perfectly and then they left. Later on, they found out the business went to a group in Malaysia with a much higher price point. What the Malaysians did was develop a bond with the Chinese, over time. It’s called guanxi in Chinese. They spent time eating, drinking, singing and talking with their Chinese colleagues. The Chinese thought the Americans had a beautiful presentation but they didn’t know if they could trust them. That’s a really big lesson for U.S. companies as they look to enter emerging markets. Where Americans see time being wasted, other cultures see that time spent in a crucially important way. You have to invest the time to build trust. There’s nothing more shocking for Asians or people from the Middle East to come to the U.S., and have brown-bag lunches and one-hour dinners and then everyone goes home.

SHRM Online: How can HR become cultural bridge-builders?

Meyer: Most organizations don’t talk enough about cultural differences. It’s not just about training, although that can also help a lot. It’s getting a dialogue started. A lot of companies take the approach that we’d better not talk about cultural differences, because that leads to stereotyping. Instead, we’ll focus on recognizing that every individual is different and every individual has something to contribute. That sounds nice, but it’s not enough. It leaves you always observing others’ cultural-determined behaviors through your own cultural lens. I would really encourage HR to encourage management to start discussions about cross-cultural competency, and to provide training not just for expatriates, which is critical, but also for those managing global teams.

SHRM Online: What are some examples of cultural traps that specifically apply to HR?

Meyer: Some HR systems don’t work well in other countries, like 360-degree feedback. You can’t use that system well in a country like Nigeria, which is an extremely hierarchical culture, and where there is extreme respect for authority. You’re going to ask an employee to rate his boss and give negative feedback about this boss? Multinationals attempt this, but they often find that the results suggest the managers are perfect. HR needs to be aware that in many societies, you can’t get reliable data from this type of system, especially when it comes to putting things in writing.

Another issue is performance reviews. In the U.S., we use high marks very readily. On a scale of 1 to 5, many people will get a 5 and be told they’re doing excellent work. In France, on a scale of 1 to 20, an excellent score is 16. A brilliant person may get 17. Something else to keep in mind is that people from different parts of the world will respond differently to receiving grades in a review. Receiving a 3 on a scale from 1 to 5 is very comfortable to a French worker, whereas someone from Brazil would feel really upset. I was working with an American company going through a merger with a German company. Germans are much tougher graders than Americans. They did an employee satisfaction survey at the beginning of the merger, and when they looked at the results the Americans’ scoring was much higher than the German scoring. But then when they did qualitative interviews, they found that the Germans were actually more satisfied at work.

Another trap for HR in dealing with a multicultural workforce is managing the rollout of initiatives, like a company’s mission and vision statement, or corporate diversity program. HR and senior leadership needs to be really careful that the mission and vision and diversity issues are not a reflection of the headquarters country’s own preference when rolling these out to employees across borders. You need to include people from other parts of the world in the discussion in the early stages of developing them. You can’t just push them out from headquarters and think that they will resonate. Diversity issues dealing with race and gender and sexual orientation are really different from one country to another, and they have to be adapted to the local culture.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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