Vive la difference

31st August 2014 | Posted in Uncategorized

A few years ago, Emma Pont (@onatrainagain) asked me to contribute to some research on managing people in other countries. Hofstede was the only academic source I could find at the time and I explained why I thought it was useful but not the answer. I explained my view that people’s personalities are usually more significant than national characteristics. I think I said that generalisations about national culture had some value but could be overstated when working with people from other cultures.

photoI’ve had a lot more experience since then – our business supports customers though twenty-seven legal identity organisations around the world. I’ve found some new academic thinking and we’re developing some thinking of our own on the subject at work. I still think individual personality is significant but these three things are making me review my discussion with Emma.

Its exciting to be working across the world. Whatever the difficulties of international travel and the effect of time differences in lengthening the working day, the opportunity to work in other countries adds a level of complexity to the work of our managers that I know most of them enjoy. But our business isn’t alone in spending little time thinking about how difficult this is for everyone concerned. We’re developing some education to increase everyone’s comfort level and facilitate better performance. We haven’t finished yet but here are the headlines so far:

Working with people is mostly about communication

I wrote this the other day and writing it made me realise a truth. HR’s obsession with process has no place in a workplace which moves as fast as it does in 2014. Facilitating the communication of a leader and their followers should be the aim of HR, whether the followers are in one country or several. From recruitment to dispute resolution through engagement and all points in between, success or failure in working with people is about communicating with them and helping them to communicate with you. Trying to structure that communication through a process can’t be the answer with an increasingly diverse and sophisticated workforce because there is never one answer that works everywhere with everyone.

Language differences make communication harder

A thoughtful Italian colleague with excellent English language skills pointed out that this blog is written in a version of the English language that he struggles to understand. Of course it is. I’ve tried hard with this one to make it as ‘globish’ as I can. It’s not easy and it takes away some of the enjoyment of the writing for me but on this occasion, my enjoyment isn’t the point. Native English speakers almost always need to try harder when communicating with non-native English speakers in exactly the same way that those obsessed with jargon need to think before they speak. It takes, time, thought and effort not to assume everyone understands. It takes more time, thought and effort if they weren’t all born speaking the same language in the same country as you. Communicating with Americans should be easier but in practice it requires me to be even more mindful of my language. George Bernard Shaw wasn’t joking when he spoke about ‘two nations divided by a common language’ and if he was writing today he could just as easily claim twenty seven countries divided by a common language in my experience. But American English is dominant. I’ve met three people in the last fortnight who’s apparently excellent English was learned from American TV. English people need extra care when speaking English.

Communicating through electronic media makes communication harder

Email, messenger, video can all lead to the assumption that communication has taken place when it most certainly hasn’t. I had two email exchanges with an English colleague I know very well last week and completely failed to understand her, partly because I was in a different time zone and she was in a hurry, I expect. There is no substitute for face to face communication. When that isn’t possible, more time and care are required than you might assume. Ease of use makes it easy to default to conference calls. The research says this is a mistake because there’s apparently a 47% chance of your colleagues being in the bathroom instead of giving you their full attention. Common sense about the value of non-verbal communication says so too. I’m also of the firm view that less frequent communication in greater depth with more time devoted to it is more likely to be successful. The pace of the business is supported by the quality of the communication, not the quantity of it.

Cultural expectations make communication harder

HBR pointed me to this. Like Hofstede, Erin Meyer uses dimensions. Hers are Communicating, or the importance of what is not said, Evaluating, or how direct you can be in feedback, Persuading or inductive versus deductive reasoning, Leading and Deciding, or the extent of hierarchal expectation in a given culture, Trusting or how much relationships govern interactions between people, Disagreeing or the amount of confrontation a culture is comfortable with and Scheduling or how much you should expect people to be on time. I like her approach very much and I mean no disrespect to her careful arguments when I point out that all of these dimensions are really about communication. What Hostede lacked for me was utility – the ‘so what do I do with this?’ factor. Erin Meyer’s experience at Insead has built a model of real use, it seems to me, because it offers observations about cultural norms which are useful at work in 2014 in a way that Hofstede’s are not.

I also read Meyer’s fundamental point as being that thoughtful leadership requires an understanding of where cultural norms represent a barrier to communication and the development of personal approaches to overcome them. In many ways, her excellent book proposes a similiar approach to all personal development: work out what I do, work out what’s wrong with it and try some ideas about how to do it better.

Commercial cultural awareness training is of limited value

In equipping some people to work in the Middle East and another for an assignment in China, we have worked with a commercial provider of cultural awareness training. It wasn’t impressive. Knowing that women wear veils or that people spit in the street is good information but neither should be a surprise to anyone with an open mind and access to a newspaper or the internet. I’ve been to two countries in the last fortnight where there have been political demonstrations. I think I learned more about both cultures from my conversations with policemen at the crush barriers and strangers in bars than I would ever learn from cultural awareness training. Curiosity and conversation should be the two things you take with you when you travel, not a rule book.

Culture isn’t just about National Culture

At the risk of stating the obvious, the culture of the organisation has the opportunity to positively or negatively influence how national culture and communication are handled. If authoritarian management is the organisational norm, cultural sensitivity is going to be hard to achieve. If impatience and overwork are the requirement, the time to do these things properly is not going to be available. Investment in developing the culture of the business is a necessary prelude to investment in cultural awareness.

I’m fortunate to work with so many cultures and to travel as much as I do for my job. I’m lucky to work with clever people who want to do things better in every way we can as we continue to develop our business around the world. I’m not sure there is any outstanding practice in other organisations and I would be delighted to hear from anyone with learning to share. I’m excited that our current thinking and some experience may develop something of real value for our business. I’ll keep you posted.

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