There are thousands of articles written on culture and almost an equal number of definitions: the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, and values; learned accumulated experience, which is socially transmitted; and the collective programming of the mind. These are just three such examples. All are valid, and all make sense.
Yet I prefer to simplify it into this definition: “It’s the way we do things around here.” This applies not just in national cultures, but with corporate and functional cultures too.
Quite simply, people, organisations and departments often just do things differently, as that is the way it is. It is what has been learned, and what they are comfortable with.
When running seminars or workshops, I would often ask a delegate to stand with me and tell me and the group about his last holiday experience. I would choose a male simply to prevent gender from also entering into the equation for this exercise. As the delegate talked, I would gently reach out and take a hold of their hand. The result? Nine out of ten times, the delegate would pull their hand away quickly and retreat, much to the amusement of the group. The purpose of the exercise? To demonstrate “culture clash” in a light-hearted way and within a safe environment.
A Question of Culture
When dealing with national, corporate, and functional cultures in the business environment, the key areas where culture clash takes place tend to be around the issues of time. Are peoples’ behaviours flexible or fixed? Does a 9am meeting start mean 9am, or is 9:15 acceptable? Are deadlines all important and strictly adhered to?
Often there will be a preference either for getting things done via rules, processes and systems, or by building relationships. In other words, is there a predominance of form filling, early contracts, and NDAs, or is there individuals getting to know each other and more social engagement?
Another factor to come into the equation is hierarchy and status. Does the culture empower people to make decisions at many levels? Can the boss be questioned or indeed challenged? Is status given to individuals according to who they are rather than what they do? Communications also comes into play. Are they direct and to the point, or are they somewhat beating around the bush to make the same point? Similarly, are transactional emails five sentences or five words?
The point is that no culture follows one side fully. But different cultures certainly lean to one end of the spectrum and behave accordingly.
In addition, culture is continually changing. Using the simple questions I have outlined, it can be quite easy to plot a German company against an Italian company, or the finance department against the marketing department. It is important here to recognise that such an approach is based on generalizations, not stereotypes.
Generalizations are not perfect, but can be helpful if you do not know someone or a company well and are trying to build a strong relationship early on that gives the best chance to influence for the good of the group. Importantly, generalizations can help us influence. They can give clues as to what to expect, and how to behave and react accordingly. Are Italians generally more expressive in body language than Germans? Yes. Are all Italians more expressive than every German person? No, that’s impossible. Is it likely that the marketing department will be more about relationships than rules and processes and systems, compared to the Finance Department? Yes, but not all of the time.
So, there’s no right, and no wrong. There is jusy “the way we do things 'round here.” Stereotypes are extremes that can be effective for humour within groups, but if pushed further become something insulting, unacceptable and dangerous. As soon as we open our mouths and say “the Germans” or “the Italians,” we are immediately generalising in any case.
So what does this mean for influencing across cultures?
If the starting point is that we are aware and acknowledge that people, departments and organisations are different, the next stage is to ask ourselves, “What can I do about it, to give a new relationship a higher chance of success?”
We have five broad choices at this point. First, we could continue to do things our own way, but this only tends to succeed when you have the power in the relationship. Second, we could mirror behaviour and do things their way because it makes sense for the relationship. Or third, we could compromise. But giving a little and asking for a little back in return means that both sides may not be totally comfortable, as people tend to feel that they have given more than they have gotten back. Sometimes, however, it is the best that can be achieved. Fourth, we could just disengage and decide that it is all just too much trouble and unworkable. Or, fifth, we could seek the Holy Grail of “Our way,” a genuinely shared way of working and relationships that all sides are comfortable with.
The last takes time, but tends to happen as the relationship matures. It is based on shared experience and trust.
Heading to an Our Way
In the world of neurolinguistic programming there is a technique on meetings and conversations called Match, Pace, Lead. This technique is often deployed by sales people to get to the sales hit at the end of the meeting.
I have found that a morphed version of this works for influencing across cultures when forming new relationships. In these situations, more often than not the way others do things is very different from what we are accustomed to, and thus what we are comfortable with.
Bearing in mind the key differences in behaviours around time, hierarchy, getting things done, relationship building, and communications, it is wise in the very early part of a relationship to match behaviours and the pace of those you wish to engage with. Stay in their comfort zone, build trust through capability and character, and inspire your contacts such that they have confidence in you and, more importantly, themselves. Do things their way. It takes time, investment, and patience. But it is right for the relationship.
I have personally seen some culture clash horror stories, where one culture has simply assumed that imposing their way of working is the natural and right thing to do. On occasion, it may be. But it is rare. It usually manifests itself as arrogance and hegemony. As the relationship grows in line with confidence and trust, the pace can be gently picked up, and one is able to move forward and demonstrate and implement leadership and thought in word and deed that would have just been too uncomfortable for others in the early stage of a relationship.
Once you reach this stage, you are now heading to an “our way” - a genuinely shared way of working based on an understanding of differences, similarities, shared pressures and targets, and alignment to a common goal. By this stage, people have usually gotten to know each other a lot better at the personality level, and when this happens, culture becomes less important regardless of where we are from, what we do and who we work for. We know each other as human beings.
There is no magic formula, but spending a little time considering the culture you are about to deal with – whether it’s national, corporate, or functional – and how you may generally differ and what you can do about it can only increase the likelihood of creating and maintaining a long term, mutually successful professional relationship.
Martin O'Connor is part of Aspectus PR's Singapore office.