Have you ever worked with a culturally diverse team, vendor, or customer? If so, did you notice any differences in work behaviors or communication style?
I recently attended the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit, where a wide array of speakers came together to talk about leadership related topics, such as emotional intelligence, characteristics of a team player, the importance of passion, ways to come to together as leaders to combat global issues, and executive success stories. But one speaker in particular —Erin Meyer, the author of The Culture Map—got my attention while exhibiting her dedication to developing a field-tested guide to bring awareness to cultural differences in the workplace.
How culture impacts working relationships
When working with individuals currently or historically residing in a city outside the US, you may pick up on some clear culture based differences in workplace behavior. Some examples Meyer identified in her research were the way we communicate, evaluate, lead, make decisions, build trust, disagree with each other, keep our schedules, and argue our viewpoints. You may catch yourself thinking “Why is she always late?”, “He never gives positive feedback!” or “What did they even talk about in that meeting?”, when actually what you are observing is a cultural difference. While the difference can sometimes feel bothersome, learning to embrace the complexities of working with international cultures and adapting together is critical to be an effect team.
Low and high context cultures
A paradigm Meyer provided in the training discussed the difference between high and low context cultures and its impact on communication, originally conceptualized by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1976. In the US, we value low-context communication, lower then nearly all other countries globally. What I mean by that is in both written and verbal communication we tend to focus on being very direct, providing clear, crisp statements, and are preferable to bullets and lists. I had a boss at a previous company who once told me emails should be comprehendible at a 3rd grade level. I have also been told that brevity was critical and any email over a paragraph should be handled over the phone. Regardless of whether that is good advice; it does suggest there is some truth behind our emphasis on explicit delivery.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are countries like France or China that value highly contextual, verbose and complicated communication that layers upon itself, requiring the speaker to read the room and use nonverbal gestures to define words with dual meanings.
Learning to navigate a new culture
I relate this to a time I spent working in Nepal as part of West Monroe’s Fischer Fellowship Program. After being awarded the opportunity to partner alongside the local community serving a human rights focused non-profit, I underestimated the complexity of becoming a valuable team member in a new culture and society. I told myself, “Just learn the language and the rest will come naturally to you,” but in fact there were a lot of culture specific lessons to be learned before I was effective.
I had to learn to relax my timelines to align myself with, in my opinion, a general lack of urgency. I had to learn that leading and decision making was hierarchical and status based, so to influence change I had to adapt and build my partnerships with the top level of the organization to get the teams buy in on even the most minor decisions and changes. I had to learn that in Nepal, trust was entirely relationship based, creating a culture that values extended tea time and hones in on nonverbal gestures, requiring me to relax my task driven focus on the program we were developing to invest considerably more energy in building relationships. I had to learn to be patient when I would not get a response to an email for weeks, until the request was completed.
Embrace the differences
As our communities become more diverse and our teams work beyond national borders, it is likely we have all worked with someone who identifies with a different culture at some point in our career.
Consider someone that you work closely with who comes from a culture different then yours. This does not have to be siloed to international borders – even nationally there are distinct differences between East Coast, Midwest, Southern, and West Coast norms. Can you identify ways that this impacted your working relationship or teams in the past? As a project manager, I try to start each new project or team onboarding meeting with a norming session where I can learn to identify these differences and set some ground rules for the way my team will operate together. Diversity should be celebrated, not ignored. By having these level-setting conversations before conflict arises, you’ll create an environment where team members can feel comfortable in their differences, and work effectively together. All it takes is a conversation.