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Understanding cultural differences is an essential tool to achieving organisational effectiveness, but managing international teams isn’t always straightforward. These four tips will keep you on track.

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer
The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

Erin Meyer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD and author of The Culture Map, shares her advice on how to manage cultural behaviours for workplace harmony.

Adapt your style

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It’s important to adapt your style to the culture you’re working in to get the results you need. People often think the biggest challenges involve handshakes or business cards - but in reality it’s much more subtle. 

Erin gives an example of a presentation she gave in Japan. When no hands were raised for questions, she returned to her seat. Her Japanese colleague then pointed out that there were questions, but in Japanese culture, these are signified by brightness in the eyes. 

She advises that we try to look for the 'silent interactions' that may cause a clash of cultures. She says, “People should remember even when they’re working with cultures that seem very similar, they always need to be on the lookout for how these cultural differences are impacting their success.” 

Build trust

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Cultural challenges aren’t always limited to face-to-face interaction, though. In today’s world of email and telephone, social differences can impact us in various different ways. 

For example, it’s common practice in the UK to follow a telephone call with an email recapping everything that was said. But in Indian culture, business agreements can often be reached verbally, and a follow-up email would be perceived as a lack of trust. 

Examples like this highlight the importance of cultural awareness in a business context. What seems normal in our society can be interpreted as something strange in another. 

Understanding how to build and maintain trust in different countries is therefore essential in order to conduct successful business dealings.

The eight scales

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The Culture Map is organised into eight different scales, to help managers identify different cultural characteristics. 

  1. Communicating – are group participants low-context (simple, verbose and clear), or high-context (more in-depth interactions)?
  2. Evaluating – when giving negative feedback, is it given directly, or with a more discreet approach?
  3. Leading – are group participants egalitarian, or do they prefer hierarchy?
  4. Deciding – are decisions made in consensus, or from the top-down?
  5. Trusting – do people base trust on how well they know each other, or how well they work together?
  6. Disagreeing – are disagreements tackled directly, or do people prefer to avoid confrontations?
  7. Scheduling – do they perceive time as absolute linear points, or consider it a flexible range?
  8. Persuading – do they like to hear specific cases and examples, or prefer detailed explanations?

Be flexible 

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Flexibility is key in order to lead in today’s complex cultural environment. 

“We have to be flexible enough to adapt our style to the society we’re working with in order to get the results that we need,” says Erin. 

Because people from different societies share different perspectives, working together gives teams a more holistic view. For example, an international team might be better at identifying risks and coming up with innovative ideas. 

The positive effect this could have on an organisation depends on the manager’s ability to manage differences effectively.

How can we help?

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