The case for cultural knowledge in global business

If your business success hinges on how you work with people from around the world, then learning about the cultures of your global business partners is crucial. The reason is simple: it makes good business sense. As a matter of fact, failing to understand the culture of your international counterparts can have consequences far beyond simple miscommunications and mild frustrations — there can be long-term damaged relationships, botched projects and real lost business opportunities.

It’s not news to anyone with international experience that leadership styles vary depending on where you are from, that decisions are made differently in Korea compared to Scandinavia, or that business relationships are forged based on different grounds in countries like the United States and China. However, simply recognizing that there are differences is not the same as understanding what they are, and how they will impact your cross-cultural teams and the results they deliver.

This article is not about international business etiquette (which is important in its own right) but focuses on the importance of understanding how your international counterpart approaches and addresses business decisions and collaborations. The goal is to foster better cross-cultural relationships, and to ensure the best possible business outcome.

In her book “The Culture Map” Erin Meyer outlines eight scales that map the world’s cultures on such traits as communication: is it a high- or low-context country, decision making: is it consensual or top-down, and time: is it a linear-time or flexible-time society. The scales place countries in relation to each other from one extreme to the other — they function as a visual clue to where you are in relation to each other.

One of the most basic examples of how the cultural environment will impact a business collaboration is when a company from a consensus based decision making culture is working with a company from a top-down tradition of decision making.

In simplified terms, something like this is likely to transpire: The company that works by consensus will launch a collaborative effort, where everyone is heard and where different avenues are explored. A decision will come, but not until all information has been gathered and everyone has had a say. Once the decision has been made, it’s pretty fixed and the team moves on to implementation, which is usually swift, as the whole team is already on the same page.

For the top-down company, the process is different. Here, the decision will be made pretty quickly by the person in charge and then as the project continues and more information becomes available, the decision can be revisited or altered — the decision is flexible, which means that implementation can take quite a long time accomplish.

Both of these styles can get the job done. However, were the two groups to collaborate without first addressing their differences, they would be out of sync most of the time over the course of the project. In addition to being out of sync, because they go about arriving at decisions in such contrasting ways, they are also likely to question each other’s capacity for making the right decisions. Also, because they view the roles of teammates differently, their respective communication flows are conflicting, which can cause confusion, uncertainty and hurt feelings.

This is just a simple example. The reality is that these kinds of scenarios play out to varying degrees in international business all the time. They can be disruptive, costly, and damaging to future relationships.

As with most things cross-cultural, awareness and open communication go a long way toward deterring conflict and ensuring a successful collaboration. But, without underlying knowledge it’s hard to know where there is room “to meet”. There are no shortcuts when it comes to cross-cultural knowledge. Doing the groundwork and educating your teams really is the only way to come out ahead, the stakes are simply too high not to. And in a world where cross-border assignments and cross-cultural teams are becoming more and more common, it’s not a matter of if you should invest in this kind of education, but how.

By: Felicia Shermis

Sources: “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer

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