Written by Martin O’Connor
Culture lacks a universal definition. Broadly, it is the deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, and values; accumulated experience, which is socially constructed. I prefer to simplify it to ‘it’s the way we do things around here’. It embodies itself in national identities and corporate cultures, and it explains why people and businesses just do things differently.
Here is a first-hand account of an exercise that I use to show the opaque translation of business cultures across nations: When conducting seminars or workshops, I ask a delegate to stand with me and tell the group about a recent holiday experience. As the delegate speaks, I take hold of their hand, and nine out of ten times, they quickly pull away, much to the amusement of the group. The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate ‘culture clash’ in a light-hearted way and within a safe environment.
A question of culture
When dealing with culture in business, the key areas where ‘culture clash’ takes place tend to be around time (e.g. are meetings fixed or flexible?), following protocols versus building relationships, and hierarchy and status (can the boss’s judgement be challenged?). To judge this, it is crucial to look at the nexus of their communications. Are they direct and to the point? Do they communicate in emails of five words or five paragraphs?
The point is that no culture is one sided. A balance is struck somewhere between the two extremes. Finally, culture is not static: it changes regularly. Using the key areas outlined above, it would be quite easy, say, 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 generalisations not stereotypes.
Generalisations 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. They can give clues as to what to expect, and how to behave and react accordingly. They can be useful, but become insensitive when laboured.
So what does this mean for influencing across cultures? If the start point is that we are aware and acknowledge that people and companies are different, the next stage is to ask ourselves: “What can I do to give a new relationship a higher chance of success?”
We have five broad choices:
- Continue to operate your own way – this only tends to succeed when you have the power in the relationship
- Do things their way
- Compromise – give a little and ask for a little back
- Stonewall – disengage and decide it is all just too much trouble or unworkable
- ‘Our way’ – a genuinely shared way of working and relationship that all sides are comfortable with (this relationship often takes a lot of time to mature)
Heading to an ‘our way’
In the world of Neurolinguistic Programming, there is a technique called ‘match, pace, lead’. It is deployed by salesmen to clinch the sale at the end of the meeting.
I have found that this technique can be adapted to form new relationships across cultures. In these situations the ‘way others do things’ differs to what we are accustomed to.
Bearing in mind how behaviours are affected by time, status and hierarchy, it is wise to match them to those you wish to engage with. Stay in their comfort zone, build trust and inspire your contacts to have confidence in you. Do things ‘their way’. It is right for the relationship.
To avoid culture clashes, you need to head for an ‘our way’: a genuinely shared way of working that all sides are comfortable with in the pursuit of a common goal. By this stage, people will understand each others’ personalities better and where someone comes from becomes less important than what we do and where we are going.
There is no magic formula. But spending a little time considering the culture you are about to deal with – whether it’s national or business – can only increase the likelihood of creating and maintaining a mutually successful relationship.