Managing Across Cultures
Charlene Solomon and Michael Schell
McGraw-Hill, 348 pages, $34.95
Most government executives, most of the time, are focused on dealing with Canadians. But there are times when they have to reach out and work with folks in other countries – even work in other countries – for short stints or longer postings. And these days, with an increasingly multicultural workplace, the mingling of different cultures can occur at home.
Guidance for such situations is offered by Managing Across Cultures, in which consultants Charlene Marmer Solomon and Michael Schell counsel business executives who are suddenly thrust into unfamiliar countries. “Culture is important for an organization’s success. It is also important for your individual success whether or not you work or travel internationally,” they note.
That requires a global mindset: an ability to recognize, read and adapt to cultural signals, whether overt or subtle, when dealing with individuals from different cultures. In that vein, the authors focus on seven key characteristics that can trip you up:
- Hierarchy and egalitarianism: The way people view hierarchy and power, how much they defer to people in authority, whether they feel entitled to express themselves, and how empowered they feel to make independent decisions and take the initiative on matters before them. This also refers to one’s relationship to power and authority. Are people in authority better, earning their status by merit, and can others with the same degree of effort be as successful, or is ranking fixed at birth as in India?Based on surveys of individuals in 50 countries, Canada stands at one extreme on the hierarchy-egalitarianism continuum, with a strong belief in egalitarianism, joined by Australia, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Somewhat less egalitarian in this cultural mindset are Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. Nations such as India, Japan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are at the other extreme, with China, Germany, Mexico and Hong Kong also highly hierarchical. “In hierarchical societies, social and organizational structures are stratified, with fairly defined ways for people to interact with one another. People in positions of authority are treated with formality, respect, and deference. Titles are often important, and a chain of command is adhered to. In hierarchical cultures, the role of the leader may be authoritative, even paternalistic, and people look for direction from their leaders,” they write.
- Group focus: Whether people consider that accomplishment and responsibility are achieved through individual or group effort, and whether they tend to identify themselves as individuals or members of a group. In group cultures, people define themselves by their affiliation with the group – its identity, values and achievements. They look for consensus in decisions and rarely impose new procedures or program modifications without lots of dialogue and group buy-in. Maintaining a harmonious workplace is essential. In individualistic societies, on the other hand, unique personal contributions are celebrated and there is a general focus in society on individual achievement. People are encouraged to express their distinctiveness and uniqueness. They often prefer to work and spend time alone; even when in a team, they focus on their individual roles. Again, Canada is at an extreme, on the individual side of the continuum, joined by New Zealand and the United States. Grouped behind are countries like Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Switzerland. Countries with a pronounced group focus are Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Qatar, South Korea and Vietnam. The group focus is also strong in such nations as Austria, Brazil, China, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines.
- Relationships: The importance and time devoted to building extensive relationships and developing trust, and how central relationships are as a prerequisite for working with someone. “Some cultures require a level of trust before embarking on any work, whereas at the other extreme, some are so transactional they are able to get down to work without having to know you at all beforehand. In cultures such as China and India, for example, if you don’t understand the depth of obligation associated with relationships, you’d be confounded by some of your colleagues’ actions and expectations. Relationships take centre stage and direct many of the activities in the workplace as well as outside of it,” they write. Canada is at the transactional end of the scale, along with the United States, getting down to business immediately. Other highly transactional countries include Australia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. Five countries are extremely interpersonal: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and United Arab Emirates. Also tending towards that approach are Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Singapore and Spain.
- Communication styles: This refers to verbal and non-verbal expression, whether brevity or detail is valued in communication, and how directly or indirectly people speak. It reflects cultural values such as hierarchical beliefs expressed through body language and level of politeness; importance of relationships through word choice and tactful language; and attitudes toward saving face and avoiding conflict by the emotion or lack of emotion of the message. We tend towards a direct style of communication – although not quite as strongly as citizens in Denmark, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. The U.S., New Zealand and Belgium are similar to us. At the indirect communication end of the continuum are Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines. Also tending that way are countries such as China, Greece, Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea.
- Time orientation: The degree to which people believe they can control time and thus adhere to schedules or whether they are more lackadaisical toward deadlines and the time that meetings are supposed to start, viewing them as estimates, with the driving factor in their life being relationships. “The culture clash around time orientation is common and frustrating and plagues Western managers perhaps more than any other of the seven dimensions,” they note. As you might expect, we have what the authors call a high orientation to time – it drives us, although not quite as much as in the United States, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. Saudi Arabia, Spain, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates are at the extreme of what is called a low time orientation, followed by countries such as Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Greece, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Portugal.
- Change tolerance: How much control people think they have over their lives and destinies – is our life determined by us, or by external forces – and our comfort with change, innovation and risk-taking. “In change-averse cultures, organizations demonstrate their concern about risk-taking by building structures with clearly defined approval systems. Young employees do not present bold new concepts, and tend to leave the decision making to older and more senior managers,” they advise. This may come as a surprise, but with Australia we are the most tolerant of change of the countries surveyed and more risk-oriented than our southern neighbour, which is only in the middle of the scale. Saudi Arabia and Ind