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Common job issues and solutions in International Management

3 Tips To Understanding Cultural Differences Before You Act


By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion"

{#/pub/images/UnderstandCulturalDifferencesBeforeYouAct.jpg}Communication makes the world go around – or does it?  When a person enters a new work & country culture, communication challenges seem to top the list of ‘lessons learned’. Why is it that an international manager can get something so basic, so wrong?  The reasons can be seen contextualised in three everyday communication scenarios: 

  1. Meetings
  2. Individualised feedback
  3. Providing Instructions

Following are some examples of differing cultural contexts: Each country has its own preconceived notion of how things are supposed to happen. 

In Meetings

Meetings occur with an assumption in place, that people have something to share and are willing to share.  This in itself has many assumptions behind it, including that all attendees are considered on equal footing, allowing for equal contribution.  It also assumes that a collaborative mind-set exists as a corporate culture element.


What could happen due to cultural differences?

  • Japan
    • Did a meeting happen about this meeting before the meeting?
  • Kuwait
    • Will we only say that which will represent the other person in a positive light, especially when the ‘habibi option’ is alive and kicking?
  • India
    • Would an opinion ever be aired publicly if in contradiction to that of the leader?
  • Belgium
    • Did a meeting really happen without the union present?


During Individualized feedback

Individualized feedback is likely to be required when performance may need to be enhanced, during an appraisal conversation or when a personalized recognition is to be shared. 


What could happen due to cultural differences?

  • Saudi Arabia
    • If it was a woman to be recognized, what’s the likelihood of a man being accepted to pass that thanks on?
  • Bangladesh
    • The sheer terror of being with the leader is enough to make an entry-level employee faint. (I've witnessed that indeed)
  • Norway
    • Would the full 2-way discussion with freedom to challenge opinions always be efficient use of time?


While Providing Instructions

When an international manager wishes to provide instructions, it may be because he or she must take a new direction that no-one else has ever spoken of before, and hence cannot be delegated to another. 


What could happen due to cultural differences?

  • America
    • Is it possible that a totally different slant on the English vernacular exists, causing true meaning to be lost at times
  • Ireland
    • What can happen to the message when accents are strong, and speech is fast
  • Japan
    • Could it be that cultural nuances are not followed in the excitement of ‘getting things done’ eg making direct eye contact?


In the words of William Butler Yeats, could an international manager have an opportunity to ‘think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people’



3 Tips To Understanding Cultural Differences Before You Act


1) Take Into Account The People’s Past

  • When moving towards the future, there will always be some habits, beliefs and behaviours to be left behind in the past, yet also many that can seamlessly enter the future.  Make a place for those to be honoured and revered. Place them at the centre of any communication, after all, these practices are already embraced by the people – an international manager wont ever be able to change that. Disconnection from them simply won’t work!  Recognize their value, no matter what personal opinions you may hold.
  • Investigate the previous manger’s style. Was it one that encouraged open and transparent communication?  Change doesn't happen overnight, and should differing priorities have existed in communication previously, it will take time for the people to accept new ones.


2)   Slow Down & Observe – Tread Carefully 

  • Communication requires trust and trust takes time to build.
  • Join meetings first as an attendee to gauge the temperature, so to speak.  Decide what seems to work and what you feel you could enhance.
  • Ask questions to your colleagues; they’ll be the first to tell you why something won’t work.  Whether or not you choose to believe them on face value will be your decision, yet the very fact you did ask will certainly gain some credibility. 
  • Look for signs of body language e.g. eyes glazing over, faces going blank. That will be a great indicator that perhaps they simply can’t understand.


3) Repeat And Restate

  • A great way of checking any communication can be to introduce a repeat and restate practice! You can never over-explain if helping others to understand is your true goal.


When Communication meets Culture, what’s your action plan to ensure that your 2 Cultures do not represent a great divide?  Part of your success is based on how quickly you can get up to speed managing your team effectively.  Don't wait to make mistakes, prepare yourself before you act.



{#/pub/images/debbienicol.jpg}Written by Debbie NicolManaging Director, 'business en motion' 
With leadership workshops, strategic approaches to organizational development and change, executive coaching and public speaking engagements, Debbie’s USP is the ability to open minds of those around her. Offering both traditional and contemporary toolkits focused on story-telling as the impetus for self and corporate leadership change. Sectors span across Asia, Africa and specializing in Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.


Do you have a management question for Debbie?  Please visit our International Management Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

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Working With Other Cultures

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Have you ever made assumptions based on your own culture that led to embarrassing moments overseas?