Thriving through cultural differences

Thriving through cultural differences

Bonnie Doe Blogs

“You’re wrong” “It doesn’t work like that”  “I don’t agree with you” 

These were just some of the challenges I received on the first morning of a three day training programme I was delivering.  All came from one participant.  She was very loud, assertive and began to dominate proceedings.  The more she challenged the more my other participants became quieter – especially the Japanese guy on the front table who had not uttered a word.

Why was my good course material being ripped apart by this lady?  Why was she so unhappy with the training?  I decided to talk to her during the lunch break.

“Unhappy?  I’m not unhappy.  The course is excellent. I always like to argue with the trainer.  It’s how I learn best.  It’s how we do things in Israel.”

Over the last four years with MTP I have had the privilege to deliver training programmes to different companies in all corners of the world.  I am becoming more culturally aware, but I do not profess to be a cultural expert.  Cultural understanding is also a subject that a lot of my course participants want to learn about, especially when we cover topics such as Business Partnering in international companies.  I was therefore intrigued by an article I saw in the Harvard Business Review (December 2015 edition) – Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da”

The piece by Erin Meyer (Professor at INSEAD) was focused on managing cultural differences when negotiating and was full of anecdotes where things have not gone to plan due to cultural misunderstandings.  She identifies five rules of thumb for negotiating with someone whose cultural style of communication differs from yours.  She also presents a cultural map which has resonated well with my experiences of training different nationalities.  For example my Israeli course participant would be placed perfectly in the top-left!

Thriving through cultural differences

Not everyone fits a national stereotype (life is not that simple), but I can clearly recall many course participants from different countries fitting nicely into Mayer’s cultural map.  The Dutch finance graduate challenging the business strategy with the senior guest speaker, ignoring hierarchical norms you might expect in other countries.  Or the joke I have with one of my colleagues that running a course in Korea is like going to speak to yourself for a week.

Another part of Mayer’s article on Trust caught my eye.  At MTP we talk about Trust a lot when we run programmes on Business Partnering.  We have always liked the model presented by Green & Howe in their book The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook who identify four trust drivers of Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self Orientation.  When discussing Trust with course participants I have been asked are all drivers equally important in all situations and for all cultures.  Until now I have not had a satisfactory response, but Mayer cites research looking at Cognitive and Affective Trust which might have some of the answers.

Cognitive trust is very close to Credibility + Reliability – it comes from the head.  Affective trust arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship and links especially well with Intimacy and to an extent Self Orientation – it comes from the heart.

Mayer highlights how in business situations different nationalities may put an emphasis more on Cognitive Trust (Germany, UK USA).  For example, the American culture has a long tradition of separating the emotional from the practical.  Mixing the two could create a conflict of interest and is viewed unprofessional.  Whereas in most developing and emerging countries, negotiators are unlikely to trust their counterparts until an Affective connection has been made.  Mayer writes that in these markets you need to build an emotional connection as soon as possible, investing time in meals and drinks and showing your human side.  In China, for example, this type of bond may take a long time to build.  Eventually you won’t just have a friend; you’ll have a deal.

Having enjoyed the article am now looking forward to reading Mayer’s book, TheCulture Map  (Public Affairs, 2014) to see what other cultural insights I can glean and will come back to this blog with a book review in the near future.

Joe Metcalfe

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