How to Effectively Manage a Culturally Diverse Global Team

May 4, 2015
9 Min Read

When Erin Meyer visited Tokyo with a Japanese colleague shortly after her book, “The Culture Map” was published, she agreed to speak to about 20 Japanese managers. After her presentation, she asked if there were any questions or comments. “No hands went up, so I went to sit down,” she recalls.

But then her Japanese colleague whispered to her that he believed there were some comments. Would it be OK if he tried to solicit some feedback?

Meyer agreed. The colleague made the attempt, but the group remained silent. Then, he made eye contact with someone and asked, “Do you have something to add?”

“To my amazement, she responded, ‘Yes, thank you,’ and asked me a very interesting question. I was dumbfounded,” Meyer says. “How did he know that she had something she wanted to say?”

The process was repeated several times, and more people lent their voices to the discussion. After the session, Meyer asked her colleague how he knew people wanted to ask questions when they were so silent in the beginning. His response? “It has to do with how bright their eyes are.”

“I thought: That’s not something I ever would have learned from my upbringing in Minnesota,” Meyer says.

Meyer says she learned that in Japan, people don’t make as much direct eye contact. So, when they do it means that they want to be called upon. When she returned to her classroom at INSEAD where she teaches executive courses, “I felt both embarrassed and unsettled to see that there were a lot of bright eyes in my classroom that I had been missing, and not just from Japanese, but also from Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Indonesian participants.”

Meyer shares this example with others because she believes it underscores how important it is to understand how different cultures communicate. If an international company wants to be successful, understanding those cultures is critical.

To further complicate matters for managers in this situation, however, is that what is polite and respectful in one culture may be a sign of disrespect in another, she says.

For example, in Russia and France, people give positive feedback more implicitly and negative feedback more directly, she explains.

“In comparison, 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. And being false and confusing is certainly not polite,” she says.

On the other hand, those from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Brazil value indirect negative feedback . “Americans come off as way too blunt,” she says.

But if a manager wants to motivate workers in the Netherlands, then frank feedback is necessary – while gentle comments are preferred in Thailand, she says.

Finding common ground

Americans are often coached to find a “common ground” with someone as a way to establish rapport. A customer with a love of baseball or a colleague who went to the same college can provide an avenue to friendly conversation and a better working relationship.

But how do you find such common interests when the other person comes from such a different culture?

Meyer says it’s still important to build that personal relationship with the other person, especially if you are working with emerging market countries. “Once you get to know each other at a deeper level the trust will come naturally and the work will get done,” she says.

She explains there are two basic types of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust.

Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability.  “This is trust from the head,” she explains.

The business people more likely to have this kind of trust and develop bonds based on it are those from the U.S. Denmark, Germany, Australia and the U.K., because they have a more “task-based” culture, she says.

Affective trust, on the other hand, arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy or friendship. “This type of trust comes from the heart,” she says. “In all cultures, the trust you feel for a parent or spouse is likely to be an affective trust.”

For example, in China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, trust is relationship-based and is built through developing a personal bond, she explains. In the business world of those cultures, “cognitive and affective trust aren’t separate but are woven together,” she says.

Because cultural differences can be so significant when it comes to business, Meyer offers some pointers on how to improve relationships. For example, for those from task-based societies who are working with relationship-based counterparts, remember to:

  • Put more time and effort into organizing meals or social events to be shared.
  • During those engagements, drop talk about work.  Laugh together, and  make friends.
  • Beyond meals, make the effort to find time to let your guard down with those you’d like to build trust with, and to build up personal bonds.

Those from relationship-based societies who are working with task-based counterparts should keep the following points in mind:

  • Don’t throw out socializing altogether. Go ahead and organize a lunch, but if it is likely to stretch to 90 minutes or longer, prepare your colleagues in advance.
  • Feel free to set up evening dinner or drinks, but if your counterparts leave early to rest or catch up on work, don’t take offense.
  • Recognize that a personal bond might help, but the business is more likely to come with cognitive proof of a high-quality product.
  • There is a very clear, practical benefit to investing in affective relationship-building, especially in emerging markets. Very often the relationship is, in itself, the business contract, so it is important to join the crowd and show your true self to feel a personal bond. In these cultures, trust is like an insurance policy: it’s an investment you need to make up front, before the need arises.

Finally, if you feel like you’ve made a cultural goof, share how it is done in your own culture “with a lot of humility” and ask for forgiveness, she says. “If you take this approach it is almost certain the other person will tell you it is no problem at all. In addition, it points out that your cultural viewpoints are different but that you are open and interested to learning to work in new ways which sets the groundwork for future collaboration.”

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