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Focus on these things to succeed in International Management

Working With Other Cultures


How do you mitigate differences in your multicultural work environment?

Our business world has become more and more global over the years and will continue to do so.  There is a difference, however, between doing business with other cultures and working in a multicultural environment.  When you do business with another culture there tends to be more respect shown to each party, a greater tendency to appreciate differences, and greater attempts made to understand one another’s needs and solutions.  Maybe it is because both parties are trying to find common ground to do business together, or maybe it is because each party is confident in their own culture and representing that culture going into the working relationship.  On the other side of the spectrum is working in a multicultural environment.  This is defined by companies that are headquartered in one country and have operations and employees located in other parts of the world.  The picture is very different when different cultures have the same objective, same boss, same systems, etc.…  The reality is that on paper these things may be stated as the same, but in practice they are implemented and viewed very differently often causing barriers, building frustrations and limiting success in the target country.  This article focuses on a few areas that can help integrate Americans in multi-cultural work environments.   Whether you are an American overseeing people from different countries, or a manager from another country managing American employees, here are a few tips to break down barriers and help develop more productive working relationships.


Establish an adapted work method.

There are always at least two sides to every relationship.  But when you are dealing with another culture it is sometimes difficult to put yourself in the other’s shoes without their help defining how they see things.  Culture often dictates a very different understanding of what is important, so different in fact, that it is impossible for the other to comprehend without explanation.  Laws are different, ethical standards are different, languages are different, expectations are different.  Instead of reacting or making a judgment, take time to articulate how you see things from your perspective and ask the same of the person you are working with, keeping in mind that not all cultures share the directness and openness of Americans.  They may not be honest with you, so build an understanding based on their actions and body language as well.  Appreciate the differences and try to work together to find an adapted solution that respects both points of view.


Understand work/life balance differences.

Americans work all year, they take vacation when they can fit it in and it is usually only for short periods of time.  Unlike other cultures that get significant time off for holidays, or extended countrywide celebrations, Americans tend to spend their family time in the evenings and on weekends, fitting in work from their home office when necessary.  Another distinction is the dual income family that exists in America more so than in any other country.  Taking time off and being flexible for family is an expectation most Americans cherish.  Other cultures tend to have one parent, most often the woman, at home dealing with all family issues.  Working days are longer in other parts of the world since vacation time is longer or the sense of family time does not exist, instead proving your allegiance to your employer is more important, and working from home is not an option.  The cultural imbalance often exists when Americans in multinational companies get frustrated because their family balance is not respected, while other cultures think Americans don’t respect company rules.  The solution is to focus on the standards and expectations within the working country.  If you are an American working in the United States for a foreign company, you need to negotiate American working conditions.  If you are an American working abroad, you need to modify your expectations to the working conditions of that country.  Ideally you should have these negotiations prior to the start of your employment, but if you find yourself in a bad situation after the fact, sit down with your human resources department, discuss the situation and work with them to find a solution you can both live with.  Before taking an overseas assignment, talk to others that have worked in that country and discuss the changes with your family; the more aware you are going into it, the more enjoyable your experience will be.


Differentiate job for life vs. career mobility.

Americans work very hard to distinguish themselves from their coworkers and from others in their field.  They educate themselves and work to better themselves in their careers whether that is by getting promoted at their current employer or leaving to take a higher level job somewhere else.  In many other cultures when you enter a company, you stay with that company for your entire career.  You may get promoted, and often times it is based on your age or background vs. your capabilities.  This difference often creates frustration because Americans tend to respect competence over hierarchy.  When Americans are managing those from cultures where age and hierarchy are the norm, they get frustrated because their employees are not as qualified as they expect them to be.  When foreigners manage Americans, they get frustrated that American’s do not show respect for those above them just because of their position.  If you are an American managing other cultures, take the time to motivate your team, set the expectations and help them to achieve success.  You can raise the bar of competency; it just takes time and effort.  Your ability as a manager is proven by the success of your employees over time.  If, on the other hand, you are an American working for someone who does not respect your competencies, you have the ability to leave.


Define risk appetite.

America has a culture of taking calculated risks based on data collection and educated assumptions.  This is sometimes a frustration when dealing with other cultures that are risk adverse and can be stifling for an American working in a foreign company that needs to have everything proven prior to making a decision.  The best approach here is to take the opportunity to prove your ideas.  Try to find a sponsor in your organization and get clarity on the information that will be needed to make a decision.  Provide as much “proof” as possible and explain why the remaining needs cannot be met.  Network to get collaboration on your idea prior to its final presentation.  If you can convince the company to go forward the first time, your success will open the door for future opportunities.  Do not be discouraged by all the work, just understand that in some cultures the idea of risk taking is unheard of, compared to American culture where educated risks are expected.  If you use these opportunities as teaching moments, the success will be more gratifying.


Cultivate innovation and creativity.

Innovation and creativity are traits Americans tend to be very good at.  Other cultures are good at this as well, but they may not be able to apply their ideas because of risk adversity or lack of marketing knowhow.  No matter where you work or who you have working for you, take the time to cultivate innovation and creativity in your work environment.  Lead this dialog, make it part of your adapted culture, and it will help your overall interaction.  No matter where you are from in this world, everyone likes to think they are innovative; you can be the one to cultivate that into success.


Identify pay and motivation.

The same job, for the same company, located in different parts of the world will have very different pay and benefit standards.  If you have employees that are located around the world you must take this into consideration.  Americans tend to get much higher salaries than anywhere else in the world; bonus structures at higher levels are significantly higher as well.  Other countries offer more benefits like living expenses and company cars.  Work to find creative ways to motivate a cross-cultural team with similar bonus plan components.  Focus on shared objectives with payouts that achieve at least the minimum competitive standards for each country. 


Written by Lisa Woods,
President, ManagingAmericans.com


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