How to Tailor Change Management to Different Cultures

Type: Features|June 2017
By iabc_admin
6 June 2017

As globalization continues to increase the number of cross-cultural interactions, the ability to function effectively in different cultural contexts has never been more important. But each culture has its own behavioral code and normative principles, so the actions, gestures, and words a person encounters in a foreign business setting can be easily misinterpreted leading to misunderstandings and missed opportunities for cooperation.??For global companies, it is important to assess strategic initiatives through a cultural lens. This has far-reaching implications for change management—the people side of change.

The role of cultural intelligence

Managing change across cultures requires not just the ability to feel comfortable when dealing with people of different cultures, but also awareness of and sensitivity to cultural norms such as body language, tone of voice, patterns of handling emotions, and concepts of justice, leadership and self.??This ability to act appropriately and effectively among people with unfamiliar backgrounds is generally referred to as cultural intelligence (or CQ).??To some extent, cultural intelligence can be viewed as emotional intelligence (or EQ) across cultural contexts. It involves acquiring perspectives and knowledge through cultural mindfulness—openness to new experiences and ideas—and then being able to transform that knowledge into behavioral skills.??Anyone who is motivated enough can cultivate his or her cultural intelligence, and anyone involved in managing change across national and cultural boundaries should.

Unquestionably, global companies benefit from change management resources (and leaders) who are culturally intelligent because they are better equipped to:

  • Work effectively in culturally diverse teams.
  • Manage conflict and misunderstandings that arise from different cultural perspectives.
  • Help others understand how cultural orientations affect attitudes and behaviors.
  • Coach others to manage challenging cross-cultural situations.
  • Take cultural differences into account when developing change management plans.

Culturally-attuned change management plans

Planning for and managing change in cross-cultural settings can be tricky.??Studies show that every culture differs in terms of its approach to decision-making, problem solving and change. When using universal approaches to change, it is important to recognize that they might not serve their purpose in every cultural setting and should be tailored based on any particular cultural markers that could potentially be barriers to (or catalysts for) effective change management. Geert Hofstede???s cultural dimensions framework is a good starting point to expose and deepen thinking about areas where facilitating strategies might need to be applied when managing change across national and cultural boundaries:

  • Power distance.??Some cultures have a higher tolerance than others for inequalities in the distribution of power. East Asian cultures traditionally have a high power distance (and more autocratic bosses), whereas Nordic cultures have a low power distance (and more egalitarian bosses). Considerations for change management plans:??How change is initiated (top-down versus bottom-up/inclusive); leadership style/sponsorship (hierarchical versus egalitarian); how decisions are made (centralized versus participatory); approach to coalition building; communication style (one-way versus two-way); and approach to resistance management (persuasive/ manipulative).
  • Individualist versus collectivist.??Some cultures emphasize personal responsibility and decision-making, while others favor shared responsibilities and consensus-building.??Anglo cultures are more individualist (task prevails over relationship; speaking one???s mind is healthy) whereas East Asian, Latin American and African cultures tend to be more collectivist (relationship prevails over task; harmony must be maintained). Considerations for change management plans:??Team dynamics (in-group, out-group, etc.); approach to coalition building; how decisions are made (individual opinion versus group opinion; data-oriented versus dialogue-oriented); communication (direct versus indirect; high context versus low context); and approach to resistance management (managing emotions versus managing facts; persuasive/manipulative versus participatory/consultative).??Also, management techniques developed mainly in individualist countries may be based on cultural assumptions that do not hold true for collectivist countries. This may also be a consideration where training packages are concerned.
  • Uncertainty avoidance.??Some cultures are uncomfortable with ambiguity (unknown, unpredictable outcomes) while others emphasize flexibility and adaptability.??Japan, for example, has a stronger aversion to ambiguity than Chinese culture countries do. Considerations for change management plans:??Leadership style and decision-making (tolerance versus intolerance for opinions); approach to communication; and approach to resistance management (persuasive/manipulative versus participatory/consultative).
  • Masculinity versus femininity.??Some cultures place a premium on assertiveness, aggression and toughness while others value collaboration and collegial behavior.??Japan is a highly masculine culture (maximum emotional and social role differentiation between genders) whereas Sweden is a highly feminine cultural (minimum emotional and social role differentiation between genders). Considerations for change management plans:??Leadership style/sponsorship (tough/aggressive leader versus caring leader/mediator); communication style; team roles and dynamics; and approach to resistance management (admiration for the strong versus sympathy for the weak).
  • Long-term orientation versus short-term orientation.??Some cultures view adaption and circumstantial problem-solving (pragmatism) as a necessity (long-term orientation) while others respect tradition and stick to formal rules and procedures (short-term orientation).??Long-term orientation is higher in East Asian countries and lower in Latin American countries. Considerations for change management plans:??Flexibility of change plans (decisions that have been made are flexible based on circumstances vs decisions that have been made are not easily adjusted); and communication (don???t have a need to explain everything versus strong desire to explain as much as possible).
  • Indulgence (loose) versus restraint (tight).??Cultures vary in the degree to which they stress conformity.??Nordic, Anglo and Latin American cultures value freedom of expression whereas Eastern European, East Asian and Muslim cultures emphasize conformity to social norms. Considerations for change management plans:??Communication approach; and approach to resistance management (more likely to remember positive emotions versus less likely to remember positive emotions; perception of personal life control versus perception of helplessness).

Change acceptance or resistance cannot always be reduced to behaviors taken at face value, but must be analyzed within the context of underlying cultural dimensions. In collectivist cultures, group interests prevail over individual interests such that individuals are normally expected to sacrifice personal benefits for the sake of the group to which they belong.??Acceptance of or resistance to change is rarely for explicit personal reasons. By contrast, seeking personal interests is regarded as natural in individualist cultures so the reasons for accepting or resisting change could be rooted in self-interest.??But the interplay between cultural dimensions also needs to be taken into consideration when developing resistance management strategies.??For example, participatory and consultative strategies might work best with individualist cultures where power distance and uncertainty avoidance are low whereas persuasive and manipulative strategies might be more appropriate for collectivist cultures where power distance and uncertainty avoidance are high. But there is no one best way, no one-size-fits-all.

Culturally attuned change management in practice

A few years ago the Canadian Center of Science and Education published a compelling case study relating to the role of cultural intelligence during an enterprise resources planning (ERP) implementation in Thailand.??The system itself was inconsistent with prevailing cultural values because it involved imposing “best practice” process designs based on a unique Western-oriented managerial paradigm.??As a result, the company needed??to develop appropriate strategies for managing anticipated resistance from users facing cultural changes related to new ways of working.

In Thailand, managerial practices are specific, and different to those in the U.S. or Europe where ERP systems are largely diffused across business sectors.??It is also a culture steeped in Buddhism, which influences how Thai people behave in both private and professional contexts. Furthermore, the relationship to time is more long-term oriented, meaning the concept of ???project??? is considered in a culturally different way than it is in Western cultures.??For example, ???starting a project??? does not mean that business transactions can start straight away just because a contract has been signed.??A ???trust period???—lasting several weeks or months—must be respected before resources and budgets can be established.??This is different from a feasibility analysis and corresponds to ???privileged moments??? where people get acquainted and have discussions not strictly related to the project.

In Thailand, face-to-face communication plays an important role in building and maintaining the social legitimacy of hierarchical superiors.??Non-verbal communication is used to express both good and bad feelings.??For example, Thai people use facial expressions to express negative feelings without being forced to verbalize them. There are 13 different types of codified smiles expressing particular feelings (joy, sadness, annoyance, embarrassment, disagreement, etc.) that can intimate consent or dissent.

A cultural intelligence frame was applied to better understand how observed cultural misfits might translate into user reactions and how those reactions could be addressed so they did not become barriers to the change (adoption of the ERP system). Taking into account the role of devotion and trust in the culture, the hiearchal cultural distance, and the tendency toward upward delegation, the change management approach took the form of an authoritarian management style.

Despite some dissatisfaction, users??? acceptance of the ERP system was due to the consideration given by employees to top managers.??This is akin to the ???Bunkun??? principle of Buddhism which translates as ???thankfulness??? and corresponds to the gratitude of Buddhists toward those providing help.

For practitioners, this case study illustrates the importance of culturally tuning change management interventions. Here the implementation of an ERP system (a Western-style artifact) that imposed Western-style processes and “best practices” that were fully inconsistent with the values of the culture was adopted because an authoritarian change management was applied, which aligned with the strong respect of employees toward their ???protectors??? (top managers) where the legitimacy structure trumps users??? dissatisfaction.


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