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Navigating Cultural Mine Fields

Maria Darby-Walker, Non-Executive Director and Executive Coach, reflects on the value of celebrating cultural differences in an international business context.

Many moons ago I was working for a mining company in Outer Mongolia with the aim of improving stakeholder relations there. At one of our management committee meetings, I looked around the table and observed that we were all sat clustered in our individual ‘tribes’. British men, Mongolian men, Australian men, and me, the sole, Anglo-Saxon female. Something isn’t working here I observed and over the months it became increasingly obvious that the Anglo-Saxon way of direct and quite linear communication was not connecting with the more circular, conversations typical of Mongolia; as a consequence, the Mongolians literally ran rings around us when it came to negotiations.

On a separate occasion, in Guinea, West Africa, a business delegation from the same mining business went to meet the then Guinean president, President Conde. However, the Anglo-Australians were given short shrift by the French speaking President as they assumed he would be happy to use a translator. They were asked to leave. The lack of cultural awareness came across as at best naïve and at worst arrogant.

Moving to the current day, I sit on a number of UK boards and am delighted that many of our employees come from across the globe. However, this brings its own challenges when thinking about how people from different cultures communicate. Of course, everyone is human and unique, and we should be careful about stereotyping, but to give one example, we were discussing succession planning at one of my board meetings, and we discussed a bright, capable, but introverted, young woman. The CEO was concerned about whether or not she was reaching her full potential and wanted to ensure she was given every chance. The woman comes from South Korea, and I’m aware that – traditionally - Korean business and personal lives are often based upon strict hierarchical structures: respect for your elders, avoiding direct confrontation, waiting for permission to speak. I stated that we needed to be careful as a business that we don’t judge others by western Anglo-Saxon standards; we should take into account the cultural norms of other people within the business, and where necessary appoint experienced coaches to help the individuals navigate their way in an environment that may be alien to them, and consider coaching for their managers too, to help them better understand cultural differences.

As an executive coach, I’ve also had interesting experiences with people from different backgrounds. One German client expressed frustration to me when she said, ‘Why do I have to start every meeting in Britain with a conversation about how everyone is and how is the weather? Where I’m from, we dive straight in.’ I explained that as a leader she needed to build rapport and trust with her team, spend a little time getting to know them better and demonstrate her human side. After a while she got the point and humorously said, ‘at least we’re not as bad as the Dutch in being direct!’

As businesses strive to become ever more inclusive, diverse, and have a global outlook, the importance of understanding cultural differences is bound to increase. Wanting to better equip myself, I turned to ‘The Culture Map’ by Erin Meyer. In her book, she explains that cultures operate across eight key scales: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling. Understanding where our own culture lies on each scale relative to other cultures helps us contextualise and work better with people from different cultural contexts.

These insights help decode how cultural differences may impact international colleagues and combines to give me a smart analytical framework with practical actionable advice. It’s imperative when evaluating performance to understand how different cultures may receive or interpret negative feedback.

Take one example from Erin’s book of Anglo-Dutch translations: In the UK we might say,’ Can you think about that some more?’ What we actually mean is ‘I don’t think I like the idea’. The Dutch may however interpret our words as ‘I think that’s a good idea, keep going!’ – so no surprise that confusion ensues.

In another example from the Culture Map, Americans and Asians were asked to take a photo of a person. The Americans took a close up of the person’s face, the Japanese, in contrast, took a photo from further away. The Americans said, ‘that’s a photo of a room not a person’, but the Japanese response was ‘how can I know the person if I do not see the context they are in? The room gives me clues – just taking a picture of the face leaves out all the important details.’ The Japanese tend to operate in high context environments – Americans at the opposite end of the scale in lower context environments. Context matters and is worth considering when working with colleagues from different backgrounds.

Navigating different cultures can bring its own challenges but ensuring we spend time understanding both the cultural context and our potential differences should help avoid misunderstandings. As stated earlier we need to be careful about over-stereotyping as there are other many other factors that might impact how we behave, but opening our eyes and ears and being clear about how we might better communicate with those from different cultural backgrounds can only make us better informed global business leaders and role models.


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