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Navigating Cultures

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Meeting after meeting, the things we discussed in the team were not picked up, while new challenges were coming our way. I felt like talking to a wall. I knew how critical performance was at that moment, so I was becoming increasingly frustrated. Although we had recently come together as a group, it was beyond my understanding of what was going on. Especially as I was working with competent people.

Then, a colleague approached me and recommended that I become “more explicit, because people don’t understand what you are saying”. I thought I could not be more explicit. Had I been more straightforward, I would be too forceful and aggressive. In parallel, I was working with many others who understood my message clearly.

The root cause: I was communicating in British, and others were listening in Romanian. Although my root culture is Romanian, after so many years immersed in British culture, it certainly made its mark. For reference, see below what the British say and what they mean.

To use the reverse example, I remember how I constructed my emails to stakeholders. A a student of a principles first school, I used to make up my argument: write up the background, the principles, the application, and the conclusions, followed by the support I needed. After the email was written, I reversed the order to start with the conclusion and the support first. British stakeholders resonate with an application-first approach.

However, if in writing it’s easier to adapt the order, verbally not so much. Especially under high pressure. So no wonder I received the feedback that I need to “get to the point quickly”.

These are just a few minor examples of the challenges global leaders face when operating across cultures. At a theoretical level, obviously, we know different cultures communicate and do things distinctively. But do we understand how differently and the implications?

Here are a few highlights of the practical implications of how cultures impact day-to-day management:

1. Cultures define how we communicate, collaborate, give feedback, and improve performance. In a global organization, with gaps in any of these aspects, failed projects, poor performance, and conflicts are just a matter of time.

2. A leader is assessed by what the group culture appreciates in leaders, not by a universal definition of leadership.

Take a leader shaped in a direct culture that values hierarchy. Put her in an organization operating in networks and influence - she won’t get many things done, and she will be perceived as territorial and rude. Conflicts will be just around the corner.

Or take a leader who masters the Western leadership model by bringing people together to make decisions, and delegating decisions down. Put him in a culture that values authority, image, and hierarchy. He will be seen as weak, indecisive, and incompetent.

3. To make it even more complex, global leaders operate in multiple cultures at once. Their results will be subject not only to their competence but to their understanding of the cultural forces coming into play.

4. What we perceive as individual bias, hidden agenda or lack of respect could be cultural elements of how a nation sees and approaches certain topics.

This is probably the hardest thing for me to accept after reflecting on culture. Simplifying the interview process to two questions, they are: “Is this person competent for this job?” and “Can this person do the job here?”. And while the first answer is more objective, the second is very much subject to culture.

5. We don’t see our culture unless we look at it from the outside.

I am Romanian and have lived in Romania for 37 years. However, I was able to truly see the Romanian culture after I travelled abroad for more than a year. Immersing myself in other cultures made me see, by contrast, the Romanian culture with the good and bad. And what many stakeholders have shared with me over the years, which I denied at the moment, became very apparent when looking from the outside.

Underestimating cultures at play can easily set someone up for failure, even the most competent... For all the leaders who operate globally, want to take global opportunities, or want to learn more about cultures, my recommendation is The Culture Map – Erin Meyer

It’s the one book I wish I had read sooner.


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