When Cultures Collide – Leading Across Cultures
In the course of a highly enjoyable and satisfying career I have had the opportunity to work on projects in over 40 countries. One thing I have learned over the years is that no matter how well I think I know the culture (national and managerial) I will always be wrong in what ever assumptions I have made about how to do business. I have also found, to my cost, that the most difficult projects have been working with people who speak English as a second language seemingly as well as I speak it as my first language. It is so easy to assume that they have the same cultural traits as I have. I have lost count of the times a client has had a quiet word with me over a water cooler or the rest room and given me a reality check on how best to do business with them.
At quite an early stage in my management career I came across the work of Geert Hofstede, Glen Fisher and Raymond Cohen and more recently the work of Erin Meyer has been very illuminating. The range of services from Culture Wizard is also excellent. But time and time again I have prepared for a project by consulting one of the many books written by Richard D. Lewis, now in his 90’s. His book When Cultures Collide, published in 1997, placed an emphasis on making an effort to understanding the similarities (just relax!) and differences (beware the red flags!).
Understanding cultural differences is now much more important than it has ever been as we struggle with video technology that hides the body language of individuals and (always overlooked) the feel of a meeting from assessing the level of engagement with people present but not participating. What makes you think for one moment that the only people in on the call are those you can see on your Zoom display? The widespread use of video conferencing is not going to level the playing field. On the contrary countries now wish to emphasis their characteristics to avoid them being ‘smoothed out’ by networking technology.
Sadly so many gurus on how to build communities seem to take the view the what works in the USA works at a global level, despite the differences in approach of the East Coast and West Coast of their country. I started working with a global virtual team based in Australia, India, Belgium, the UK, Canada and the USA in 1974 when all we had were a telephone handset and Group 1 fax. Do any of you remember Group 1 fax working at 5 minutes a page! My largest virtual team was 145 people in 19 countries from Tokyo to San Francisco. By then we had email and rudimentary (and very expensive!) teleconferencing. Even with this level of experience I try hard to listen and watch out for the clues that hint that I may be making assumptions about project team members.
The scale of the challenge is best illustrated by the fact that the 4th Edition of When Cultures Collide runs to 556 pages and covers over 60 countries. The paperback version has recently been published. There is a very good introduction to the issues, challenges and solutions that runs to almost 150 pages of the book. No book can be definitive and in every country there will be people who run counter-to-type, often a result of being educated outside of their country of birth.
There is no immediate sign of the ‘new normal’ that was supposed to emerge post the initial impact of Covid-19. Virtual teams will continue to be an essential component of getting work done. If you have to work trans-nationally investing in this book may reduce the amount of laughter post the Zoom/Teams call when everyone shares notes on your cultural intransigence.