Most organizations are so busy focusing on the usual day-today operations in order to keep up with the constantly evolving workforce that they leave out an important part of doing business—the culture factor.
In order to work more effectively with your global colleagues, you must first understand what makes them different. How do they prefer to communicate? How do they prefer to do business? What are the norms in their culture? Not understanding these differences can lead to serious obstacles within an organization. It can certainly lead to a disconnect between headquarters and its international locations or for those working on multicultural teams. Once that disconnect is there, it’s hard to repair. Getting ahead of these obstacles is a sure way to keep teams aligned and operations running smoothly. In today’s global world, learning about other cultures is no longer a luxury—it’s an essential part of doing business.
Here are five key ways in which cultures differ around the globe, along with tips on bridging any differences.
Direct versus indirect communication
Direct cultures prefer communication to be simple and precise. Messages are direct. Yes means yes. Words are used communicate an exact meaning in order to avoid misunderstanding. Those from direct cultures believe it’s the responsibility of the speaker to make sure her ideas come across clearly. They may appear rude to those from indirect cultures. Countries that are typically direct in their communication style include Israel, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Indirect cultures prefer a more nuanced communication style. Messages are implied. Yes may mean yes, no, or maybe. Information is embedded into the style and context of their communication and not in the specific words. Those from indirect cultures believe it is the responsibility of the listener to understand what is being communicated. To people from direct cultures, they may appear untrustworthy or inefficient (e.g. “Why don’t you just get to the point already?”). Indirect countries include Japan, China, Peru and Saudi Arabia.
Tips for working with direct cultures:
- Pay attention to the words spoken.
- There’s no need to look for any hidden meanings.
- Don’t be too detailed in your communications, whether they are verbal or in an email.
- Use concise language and keep it short.
Tips for working with indirect cultures:
- Look at non-verbal cues such as eye contact and body language.
- Read between the lines.
- Always get clarification.
- Use open-ended questions: Ask “When will you be able to get that report to me?” instead of “Will you have that report to me by 3 p.m. Thursday?”
Individual versus group focus
Individualistic cultures tend to look out for themselves and emphasize “I” instead of “we.” These cultures take responsibility for individual successes and failures and reward individual initiative and achievement. Countries that tend to be individualistic include the U.S., Australia, Sweden, and England.
Group-oriented cultures are more consensus-driven and emphasize “we” instead of “I.” They put the needs of the group ahead of the individual and reward group work and team collaboration. Countries with a strong group orientation include Colombia, Oman, Kenya and Vietnam.
Tips for working with people from individualistic cultures:
- Don’t be afraid to discuss individual goals and objectives.
- Be careful not to micromanage.
- Don’t be afraid to express your own individual ideas.
- Use individual competition as a motivator.
Tips for working with people from group cultures:
- Be patient. Decisions may need input from many stakeholders, as consensus is the goal.
- Don’t be afraid to monitor group progress (i.e. micromanage).
- Set collaborative goals.
- Don’t force your ideas on others.
Hierarchical versus flat structures
Hierarchical cultures value status and rank over competencies. Titles are important, as is respect for authority. Organizational structures are multi-layered, and interactions are more formal. Countries that adhere to hierarchical structures include India, Mexico, Thailand and Venezuela.
Flat-structured cultures value competencies over status and rank. These cultures are less formal, and people address each other by first names. Organizational structures tend to be flat, and it’s acceptable to challenge higher-ups. Countries that exhibit egalitarian traits include Denmark, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand.
Tips for working with people from hierarchical cultures:
- Be careful not to contradict or correct your supervisors, especially not openly.
- When delegating, expect your requests to go unquestioned.
- Do your research; if you don’t have the answers to a supervisor’s questions, it can negatively impact your credibility.
- Don’t be afraid to negotiate for a win-lose outcome.
Tips for working with people from flat-structured cultures:
- Don’t be afraid to openly question or contradict those in higher positions.
- When delegating, you may need to explain the reason for the request.
- Don’t worry about not having all of the answers, but know who does.
- Negotiate for a win-win outcome.
Task versus relationship orientation
In task-oriented cultures, trust is often given from the start. Relationships don’t need to be strong in order to complete projects successfully; the relationship will come later, once the task has begun or is completed. Decision-making can go quickly, even if you’ve just met. You will likely meet people who are highly task-oriented in Canada, Norway, Sweden and the U.S.
In relationship-oriented cultures, trust needs to be earned. Relationships build up slowly over time and are required in order to successfully complete tasks. Decision-making will go more quickly if you put in the time upfront to get to know all parties. Countries that lean toward a more relationship-oriented culture include Brazil, Indonesia, Russia and the Philippines.
Tips for working with people from task-oriented cultures:
- Don’t spend too much time in pre-negotiations or meetings.
- Use virtual communication for meetings; it’s seen as efficient.
- Understand that flexibility may not come naturally; be patient.
- When giving feedback, be sure to define standards.
Tips for working with people from relationship-oriented cultures:
- Take time to get to know your colleagues.
- Use face-to-face (in-person) meetings whenever possible.
- Remain flexible and willing to consider unanticipated events.
- When giving feedback, listen and show appreciation.
Situational versus rules focus
In situational cultures, rules are meant to be broken, or at least bent. Circumstances determine the action. Favors and exceptions are OK and expected. Countries that are generally situational include Bolivia, Ethiopia, Morocco and Sierra Leone.
In rule-oriented cultures, rules are meant to be obeyed. Policies and procedures determine the action. Special favors are not seen as OK and may, in fact, get you into legal trouble. Countries that are very rule-oriented include Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the U.S.
Tips for working with people from situational cultures:
- Make decisions based on each individual situation.
- Be flexible in meetings; they may not follow the structure you are accustomed to.
- Expect information sharing to be open.
- Allow for fluid processes; they will change often.
Tips for working with people from rule-oriented cultures:
- Make decisions based on logic; be prepared to prove and justify them.
- In meetings, be sure to stick to agendas; don’t go off-topic or down rabbit holes.
- Expect information sharing to be controlled.
- Pay close attention to processes; create process maps and guidelines to follow closely.
Understanding how, and more important, why cultures differ is an essential part of working in global organizations. These differences can affect everything from leading and supporting teams, to negotiating and closing a deal. Learning how to improve communication with people in other cultures is an essential part of creating a truly global organization.