Consider the following hypothetical situation: You have been tapped to go to Asia and present your company’s global strategy for the division. This is your first time as the executive who delivers this most important message, so you prepare the presentations, ensure you have all the facts, and make sure to anticipate any questions. You are delivering the same message in three countries in Asia. In the interest of time, you arrange to do the presentations in the morning and travel to the next country in the afternoon. You are determined to convey the message so well your audience will immediately see how good the strategy is!
The reality, however, is that in spite of all your preparation, you are most likely going to antagonize your audience. At the very least, you are not going to get agreement. At the worst, you are going to be rejected. Why? Because you have not taken the time to understand their culture. Culture, you ask, why is that important? Culture is the “way things get done around here” and, even for the same company, the culture will differ by country. You are about to discover the axiom of “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning culture overrides any strategy if the people are not aligned.
Business is now global, but buy-in for business strategy happens at the local level. Woe betide executives who believe they can impose their culture on the business globally! To get your global supply chain strategy accepted, you need to take some time to learn about how the culture works at the local level. The following is some advice that I have gathered after years of experience working in global business settings.
Tip 1: Get a sense of how different the culture is from your own
Can you predict how different a national culture will be from your own? The answer is you can get some sense of the basic principles of a national culture from practical research done by a Dutch social psychologist called Geert Hofstede.1
Hofstede determined there were six dimensions that set cultures apart and scored countries on a relative basis for each of them. For the purposes of this article, I have simplified (and in some cases renamed) those dimensions into the following:
If any of these dimension scores are more than 10 points different when comparing one country with another, this indicates that there is significant cultural difference between the two countries. The table in Figure 1 provides some example scores for a small sample of countries: the United States, China, Brazil, and Russia. I have used the word “far” to indicate an extreme difference, “much” to indicate a significant difference, and “more” for a smaller difference in scores. It is important to note that these are my interpretations and simplifications of the research.
[Figure 1] Cultural values and relative interpretations for three countries
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When you are contemplating going to a country, these six measures can offer a general idea of how the culture there may differ from your own. You can arrive in the country with an understanding of what the culture will have imposed on the thinking and behavior. Does the general culture desire long-term thinking or short? Will they look to the wider family implications or just their own immediate family? Do you have to deal with hierarchy issues such as presenting your title and being formal or informal? All these are details that you can use to make yourself more successful around the world.
For example, many countries respect hierarchical position far more than Americans do. While most Americans call their bosses (and probably their bosses’ bosses) by their first names, that is not accepted in many other countries. Knowing about this cultural difference can help ease frustration and navigate difficult situations. It can be helpful, for example, to know that in some countries respect for hierarchal relationships takes precedence over the business case or what those in the West might call the “facts.” In these more hierarchal cultures, if you are new to the local team, even though your expertise is accepted in your home country, you need to make time to talk to the senior people, let them get to know you, and build some rapport before you start presenting important material.
Furthermore, in many Asian cultures, where there is a concern for hierarchy and the collective group, managers will not give an immediate yes or no answer until the senior people in the country have discussed it with their teams and decided this is the way forward. (So do not think you have been immediately accepted in the space of one meeting, even if the participants are nodding their heads—all that implies is they are listening to you!)
I worked for a subsidiary of a major Japanese firm and met this cultural aspect. I contributed with high quality work and went to meetings for three months and was never called on to talk; until one day the senior Japanese person addressed me directly. After that, the other members of the team were free to discuss things with me. This cultural tendency is also true for many Middle East countries.
Similarly, in some parts of Africa, it is accepted that the facts of an issue are not as important as not offending the manager or head of the team. In many ways this is the same as saving face in some Asian cultures. But it is difficult to understand this when you are trying to find the facts of an incident or problem.
If not resolved, cultural differences can become deal breakers. Consider the effect that long-term thinking versus short-term thinking can have on signing contracts. Some Asian countries, for example, believe in long-term relationships with business partners without the enforcement by lawyers. I once had to walk away from a deal because the company from Asia wanted a 25-year deal, not five years, and my board of directors did not understand a 25-year commitment or like the risk.
Tip 2: Learn basic local customs
In addition to knowing how the country’s culture differs from your own, it is helpful to learn about basic local customs. Accept that you are going to a country with a tradition and culture that is not your own. Before you go, read up about it, learn the history. Remember China was a major nation thousands of years ago. Mongolia ruled Asia in the days of Ghengis and Kublai Khan, and Egypt had a civilization that still awes us today.
Then learn how to say a few key phrases: I am sorry, I do not speak your language, please, and thank you. Learn how to greet people in the morning, afternoon, and evening and how to say goodbye. Practice these so you can use 30 phrases to show you are trying to fit in. And say, “I cannot speak your language” with a smile or a bow, be humble not arrogant, as you need them to work with you to achieve tasks and strategies, not to resist or reject you. And let them know you are trying to understand, while still requiring the standards you need.
Learning local customs and traditions can go a long way toward paving the way for a successful business relationship. It is unlikely you will grow a serious relationship after a major cultural faux pas! If you do not know how to respect the culture’s specific social niceties, you will continue to be less than a respected colleague.
Here are a couple of examples of seemingly small customs that can have a big effect.
Business cards: Do you know how to exchange a business card in the part of the world you are going to? In Asia, it is a stylized and formal process, as it is the beginning of a potential relationship. It is done with two hands, and the person’s name and title must be read immediately with respect, not just put into your pocket—that is disrespectful. Nor should the person receiving the business card write on it, that would be seen as defacing it and is an affront. The practice of leaving multiple cards out for anyone to take is equally not an acceptable practice.
Gifts: Gift giving can be particularly fraught, and violating local customs around it can lead to a cultural mistake of the highest order. Make sure you know the protocol for presents and corporate gifts. You might be tempted to just go to the company store and pick up a set of tumblers to give to an important contact. However, this simple action could lead to a cultural gaffe. Often tumblers come in a set of four. You may ask, “So what? What’s the big deal?” In some parts of Asia, the word for “four” is similar to the word for “death,” so out of respect you never give four of anything. Furthermore, in some countries, it is the host who gives the gifts, not the visitor. Imagine the offense you may unwittingly cause if you arrive with a set of four items as gifts in a country where they believe the number four is indicative of death and the host should give the present!
China and some parts of Asia also have gift-giving traditions such as the red envelope. The red envelope is used to give a monetary gift, often at important times like Chinese New Year. There are many nuances associated with giving red envelopes. First, the envelope must be red as this color is seen as being lucky, and the money must be an even amount, as odd amounts are associated with funerals. It is a cultural mistake of the highest order not to know and work with this; remember in cultural relations ignorance is not bliss.
You may be tempted to assume you have a good understanding of all the country’s most important cultural beliefs and traditions and that your senior manager in the country will help you to navigate what you don’t know. But this is a risky position to take. Local managers may not know you well enough to feel they can warn you, let alone interrupt you as you start to make a mistake. Tread carefully, as the damage to your reputation from a culture problem can occur quickly and irredeemably if you offend the culture of the local organization.
Tip 3: Do not assume that all cultures in a region are the same
It is important not to make generalizations and think that all countries in a particular region have the same culture. Consider Europe, for example. In many cases, the countries on this continent share the same economic system and similar history and ethics, but they still can have some major culture differences.
For example, some countries in Europe are very concerned with hierarchy and want to ensure in business settings that people interact with those that have similar qualifications. I once went to a German chemical complex and was unaware of this. When the personnel assigned to show me the plant realized I had a greater depth of knowledge than they thought, they asked me for my qualifications, and then immediately brought in people who were as qualified or better. It is a source of both pride as well as respect to ensure that you are meeting with similarly or better qualified people. Contrast this with the Dutch, who generally are not as formal and often appear to be more casually dressed.
Brexit and the United Kingdom’s efforts to leave the European Union reveal the extent of these cultural differences and how deeply they can be felt by the population. The history of Europe is full of wars and conflicts and different countries ruling others. These have left different thinking patterns and hence cultures which you must navigate.
Similarly, do not lump Africa into a single culture, as the cultures there vary significantly. In the sub-Saharan region, for example, there are very different cultures between the east and west regions, as well as by country. And these cultures all differ largely from the Northern African region of Egypt to Morocco.
Tip 4: Figure out how to work within the culture
Sometimes the culture of a country can seem to get in the way of accomplishing your business goals. However, many times you can still find a way to work within the culture to achieve them.
In Russia, for example, position and formality is far more respected than in America. I had a classic experience of this when I went to meet my team in Russia, which was underperforming. This was the first time a company senior executive had visited. We sat in the meeting, and they continually addressed me by my title and would not talk freely about issues. This was expected due to the hierarchy deference in Russian culture.
I realized I had to overcome this and late that evening, as we were about to leave, I told them that tomorrow I wanted to hear what they wanted to change to be the best team in the company and what they needed from me to achieve that. Russians also have a high team focus, and I traded on this. They came back the next day, and the conversation started to flow more freely, and problems and issues slowly emerged with solutions. The pride in the team and patience (with my jet-lagged gritted teeth) had largely overcome the hierarchy issue. I left three days later, and over the next three years this team went from a poor one to one of the best, and they accomplished this improvement without personnel changes. Some of these people 15 years later still drop notes to me. All I did was listen, understand the culture, and encourage them to work with me to be the best.
Sometimes it can be difficult to balance the cultural norms and values of your company with those of the country it is operating in. Once, a company I worked with wanted to have a two-week instructor-led training program with exams for all our supervisors and up. Our course in the Middle East was held in Bahrain to be available to the whole region. We wanted the women on our staff who wanted to become supervisors to be able to attend. But at the time, we had women on staff in Saudi Arabia, and they were not allowed to drive or be alone with a man who was not a relative. While we wanted the women to be able to attend, we did not want to offend the culture of Saudi Arabia or the surrounding countries. To get to the course, we had to make sure that female Saudi staff members had their mothers accompany the male drivers.
Tip 5: Cultural differences do not go away when you interact remotely
Understanding cultural differences is also important when you are interacting with business colleagues and supply chain partners via phone calls and video conferences. When you phone someone or receive a phone call, do a video conference or similar, you need to be clear about the culture of the person on the other end. For some cultures, you start the conversation with your title and interact in a formal manner until the conversation is at the point where you can be more relaxed. In other cases, you might want to be informal from the beginning. You need to know this before the call, which means preparation and thought not only on the topic of the conversation but also on the people who are attending.
Your method of talking to the person on the other end must be respected by everyone participating in the conversation. Your hardest task is when there are multiple parties on the call from multiple cultures. Instead of dealing with only one culture at a time, you have to balance multiple cultures at once. So, think about a way to approach each person with the cultural values most dominant, without becoming a “Jekyll and Hyde” as you manage the conversation. Making small concessions to the person’s specific culture as you work through the team will show that you are aware of their culture, while still trying to work together as a group. This does not mean you have to lose control of a meeting as you try to accommodate all the different cultures, but it will give your people impetus to work with you because they instinctively feel you are understanding their culture and them as contributors to the business. It will be respected and buy you far more cooperation than just having your culture be the absolute dominant one over all other cultures.
By this point, you will hopefully realize that culture will be of major importance to your working around the world. If you have this in your mind every time you deal with different people, then you will work better with these cultures and be more successful. Is it intuitive? The answer is no, it requires thought, preparation, and just that little bit of instinct when all of this preparation doesn’t quite cover that one situation. In that moment, remember your culture is not better or more sophisticated. You are dealing with a person of another culture and you must persuade them that you understand them and are trying to accommodate their culture as much as possible. It is important to stress that you are trying to make sure that they are successful. Above all, no culture will reject the concept of “be the best so we are proud to work here,” which is a way to bind a team and overcome any cultural differences.
John Vogt is currently the president of WWBC LLC, an independent consulting company for Strategy and Global Leadership, having retired as Visiting Assistant Professor in the College of Business MBA Program for the University of Houston Downtown.