Monday, August 28, 2017


We have talked in recent weeks about the various ways, from culture to culture, ideas are exchanged, business is conducted and relationships are established. In today’s global business and academic climate, understanding these differences and how to adjust to them is crucial.

There is the “American way,” where talk is direct, where “top-down” decisions are made but then are followed by egalitarian, consensual discussions to tweak and further refine the initial plan. In contrast to this, many African and East Asian cultures are deferential, with hierarchical patterns of management. And then there are emerging countries –gradually changing over time-- where in the beginning democratic, egalitarian values are desirable in theory but in fact a strong leader holds sway.

So what does someone an international background do –raised in one culture, educated in another, and perhaps working in one or more countries where still other patterns prevail? Understanding which patterns you instinctively follow and then adjusting yourself to the dominant local practices takes honest analysis and constant attention.

And what can large global businesses do, where personnel from many cultures work together at various locations worldwide? Google’s solution is to build its own unique company culture that will override any country differences. Still, they must do so carefully, lest they appear to lose respect for diversity or appreciation for each local area.

Managers dealing with a diverse workforce in worldwide locations must accommodate difference by, for example: on a conference call from America with Brazil, use one style; with Japan, another; and with several countries together, use yet another.

On global teams, where some cultures do all the talking and other not, the solution might be to give a pre-meeting heads-up with time for everyone to plan their responses. Announce what you’ll be discussing and that you’ll be asking everyone for feedback. This way you’ll give those from the more hierarchical cultures “permission” to speak up and those who may dominate a reminder that they must share the discussion time.

Multinational corporations need people with multi-cultural flexibility. There is a clear path to advancement for those whose mindsets are finely tuned to intercultural communication and ways to accommodate a range of approaches.

Monday, August 21, 2017


In recent weeks we’ve discussed the decision-making process in America and how that pattern differs from other cultures. Put a little too simply, developed countries with egalitarian values follow one model, while hierarchies and emerging nations tend to follow another.

Erin Meyer, professor at the prestigious international business school INSEAD, presented some fascinating research in the July-August 2017 Harvard Business Review. She categorized 55 countries along eight behavioral scales, in order to show how various cultures defer to authority, reach consensus, and otherwise resolve problems. Everyone involved in any global venture –from education to research to business—should examine what she discovers.

She presents the common extent to which Indians, Koreans, Nigerians and Chinese defer to authority and are marvelous team players.

She also shows surprising commonalities in Russia, India and America, where decisions are made quickly, often by the boss, but then may be readily and routinely changed as more information comes to light.

She divides Europe into North and South, the former (especially Scandinavia) exhibiting extremely consensual patterns of problem solving, while the latter (especially the Catholic countries) yield to authority. In this latter respect, she finds France more deferential than Germany.

She discusses what the “Anglo Saxon,” English-speaking countries have in common, and finds that Australia exceeds even the United States in being the most egalitarian and consensual in problem-solving.

She questions why nations as disparate as China, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia are alike in many elements of their processing.

She determines that every emerging market country, despite how much they profess democratic values, has top-down leadership, a valuable survival tactic. After all, as the institutions and legal systems are still developing, it is useful to have a strong and undisputed leader for every effort.

This begs the question, how must the American workplace react to these realities? And how must American workers adjust to such outside practices? And finally, how must non-native professionals working in America adapt their patterns to American ways? This is the subject for next time!

Monday, August 14, 2017


We talked last time about how the American pattern of decision-making is “top down egalitarian.” It follows two seemingly contradictory instincts: speedy decision-making in order to win by being “first out of the gate,” along with a reliance on limitless free expression as everyone talks through the process democratically. Other cultures –for example Germany and Japan—operate very differently, with their own brand of excellent results.

Compared with America, the German culture places more emphasis on hierarchy, as Japan does to the extreme. Both cultures are formal when addressing superiors, Japan with its pervasive honorifics, and Germany with titles that may include field of specialty, education, and position relative to the speaker (translated, for example, “Director Economist Doctor Schmidt”). Both cultures will seat the superior at a special place at the table, and give him/her in a private office with a closed door.

In terms of process –exploring problems with others, reaching consensus, arriving at decisions—the hierarchical Germans and Japanese are closer to each other than to the Americans.

Their communication patterns will differ, however. Germans are generally comfortable with English and its accompanying body language. Germans are direct (even more so than Americans, in fact) and value open and strong debate. Unlike Americans, they may boldly argue with the boss’s decision.

By contrast, the Japanese communication style is indirect, subtle, and harmonious in meetings, with disagreement permissible only behind the scenes.

But both groups are alike in critical ways. They value structure, punctuality, and organization over the fluidity of thought and process that Americans employ. This likely accounts for the high level of success these cultures have with mechanical execution (over random exploration and creativity, in which America excels). Their processes and products are precision-dependent, as seen, for example, in their superlative automobiles.

Regardless of cultural differences, when working in America, non-natives must adapt to the local way of communicating and expressing ideas from the outset. Only later in the process can the strengths of outside approaches benefit everyone. Next time we’ll discuss this, country by country.

Monday, August 7, 2017


How Americans approach general brain-storming and decision-making may require you to make some adjustments, depending on your native culture.

Americans pride themselves on egalitarian values. They speak freely in meetings and may offer unsolicited comments to others, including the boss.

Americans do not defer greatly to their “superiors” –bosses, team leaders, teachers, etc. In many circumstances, they may call authority figures by their first names. In meetings the leader may mingle easily with the group, sitting randomly with them in no particular seat of importance or place at the table. The boss may work in an open space together with everyone else, rather than being separated in a closed private office. In this way, the leader is open to the varying points of view, ideas and proposals of others as the team works out a solution.

But you may sometimes observe a confusing twist: While enjoying free expression, Americans also value speed and quick decision making, so they may shift quickly from their role as free-speaking individuals to towing the line as team players.

When faced with a problem, the boss may briefly entertain opinions from others but then suddenly announce his/her own decision on the matter. At that point everyone willingly falls in line as team players and gets the process going. But then again, as the work unfolds, an egalitarian pattern of free expression returns, with everyone evaluating the decision and perhaps suggesting variants of what was initially decided.

This sequence is central to American decision-making, that is: quick to make a top-down decision, but then to painstakingly tweak that decision, refine it, and end up with something that is creatively inspired after being tested and thoroughly considered.

By contrast, hierarchical countries like Japan and even Germany will follow a very different model, with potentially quite different results! Next time we’ll address this.