I was struck a few weeks ago by a paper in Harvard Business Review entitled “How Meetings Differ, from Stockholm to New Delhi”. The author underscores the hard contrast he encountered when shifting from a trip in Sweden to a series of meetings in New Delhi, and emphasizes the different approaches of time and linearity in both cultures. Behind this mundane anecdote, the author delivers us a very profound message on cross-cultural management that I want to highlight here.
Two approaches of cross-cultural management training
Usually, when a company or a manager is looking for acquiring some skills in “cross-cultural management”, they focus on gaining a certain level of knowledge on what I could call the “target culture”, that is the culture they are going to be confronted with. This is quite a useful first step. Being aware of the differences is the beginning of wisdom.
The problem is that any national culture takes its sources in a very long history, is multiform, and needs a long time to be understood if you want to avoid caricature. If you are not convinced of that, simply try to sum up the 10 major traits of your own national culture, in which you really recognise yourself. Then, ask some of your colleagues and of your friends, if possible varying genders, ages and jobs, to do the same selection. And compare!
You will probably find a few commonalities, but not very much. This is what I call caricature, namely strengthening some traits which are true to a certain extent, but are not the truth. I have met some British people who have no sense of humour, who don’t like tea, and who are very keen on shaking hands (in the proper sense) in any circumstances! And I am 100% French, and nonetheless, I don’t like eating frogs!
Of course, another drawback of this kind of approach is that you have to do the job with each “foreign culture” you are bound to encounter. This could be very wearisome for true international companies or jobs.
Once again, such an approach is useful, even sometimes necessary, to get convinced that there are differences. But then, the true question is: how can we manage cultural differences, whatever they are, even if we have to abandon the prospect of becoming an expert in the other’s culture?
I have experienced to this purpose a very effective way, relying on three keys:
- Cross-cultural begins with your neighbour; be sure that he or she doesn’t share exactly the same values or beliefs as yours.
- The very skill which is required for successfully manage in a multi-cultural environment is not to be able to be listened to, but to be able to listen.
- Managing or exercising leadership, in particular in a multi-cultural environment, is very close to negotiating, in a genuine win-win approach.
Once again “benevolence” is an invaluable asset
I have already quoted benevolence as an asset for innovation in a recent article on this blog. Let’s be clear: I am not preaching! I merely want to focus on the fact that you cannot truly accept others’ cultures, as you cannot truly accept new ideas, if you judge rather that welcome. That is what I mean through benevolence. And that is also what the author of the HBR article quoted at the beginning of this paper shows. He became able to deal with the very peculiar — for a “northern European” — way the meetings were managed in New Delhi when he accepted the idea that there probably were good reasons for these people to behave like that. Such an attitude is the backbone of principled negotiation.
The way I tackle cross-cultural management is two-sided:
- Relying on NLP, I focus on how you can install a “simultaneous position” with the other and learn to listen carefully not only to the content of the conversation, but also to the form, and in particular to the tiny changes in the form, which are usually meaningful.
- Relying on principled negotiation, I focus on the assessment of both sides’ interests at stake, behind the respective positions, and on the acceptance that “the other guy has surely good reasons to be like he is”.
I have used such an approach in particular in teaching Chinese managers, Brazilian managers, Tunisian managers, all of them part of a French multinational company. It works. I mean that, after such a training, people looked at each others differently. They did not quite understand why the others — be they French, Tunisian, Brazilian or Chinese — behave like they did. But they understood that they had to take into account the criteria behind the behaviour rather that try to mimic the behaviour. And this is cross-cultural management, isn’t it? The purpose isn’t to build standardized cultures, but to be able to get traction and to unlock the potential of each culture. If not, why should you bother with different cultures? If I wanted to be provocative, I could say that if you do not believe that each culture has traits that can be very useful for your business, just behave like the ancient colonialists did: negate the others’ culture, and make them adopt yours. You will loose the very benefit you looked for when internationalizing… and you won’t last long, since colonialism is no more acceptable.
Do not try to learn the other’s culture, but learn how to respect it
So, if you are to manage people in different countries, or to partner with companies in different countries, you probably haven’t got enough time to learn their culture. Sometimes, it would need a lifelong time!
You may benefit from learning a little about the other country’s history, literature and language. You won’t become an expert, but it could help you be convinced of the existence of differences and resources. But moreover, learn how to build a true win-win cross-cultural management. This will enable you to tackle a lot of different cultures. And, as a side effect, it probably will help you to manage more efficiently and more respectfully your teams, even if they share your own national culture!