Managing Across Cultures

Managing people from different cultures can be very challenging especially if you haven’t had the proper training or experience.  Global Management focuses on helping managers with this challenge by providing workshops and seminars that train them to understand the ins and outs of how to manage across cultures.  Below are some of the examples that are provided as part of the training curriculum.  Contact us for more information on seminars and workshops for your organization.

Managing Multicultural Project Teams
Practitioners have learned from experience that managing people at remote locations is difficult. They are also aware that cultural differences make managing project teams even more challenging. Our eighteen years of doing training managers around the world have revealed that three cultural variables cause the most frustrations for Americans and many other Westerners who lead international project teams.
It happens that Chinese and Indians share these three trouble-causing behavioral characteristics and since most of our U.S. and northern European clients run project teams in China and India, the examples here will focus on these two important business cultures.

Task-Focus versus Relationship-Focus
The U.S. belongs to a handful of task-focused business cultures found only in northern Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries. In contrast over 90 percent of the world’s cultures (including India and China) are relationship-focused, and project team members from those countries usually expect to be managed in ways which differ from the approach employed by task-focused managers. The resulting conflicts cause continuing frustration for sides.
For example, Americans tend to assume that most communication with far-flung colleagues can be done via email, phone and video conferencing. Relationship-focused team members however assume that complex, difficult or painful issues will be handled in person: face-to-face. Relationship-focused Indians and Chinese also expect more small talk and more time devoted to developing personal rapport than task-focused companies expect.
Finally, matrix management, which is so often involved in project work, tends to confuse relationship-focused people even more than it does task-focused Americans. All these differences lead to friction and misunderstandings which reduce the project team’s productivity.

Egalitarian versus Hierarchical Management Behavior
The second key behavioral difference also has to do with contrasting expectations and assumptions: Chinese and Indian team members, like the vast majority of the world’s people, come from hierarchical, stratified societies where status differences are important, employees defer to authority, learn never to challenge or contradict their boss, assume higher-ups make all decisions and tend to expect detailed instructions and close supervision.
So of course problems arise because egalitarian managers expect international team members to do their jobs with minimal direction, to use their initiative and to openly express any disagreement they may have with the project leader’s decisions. Those differences explain why experienced American project managers complain that their Chinese or Indian team members “lack initiative,” “expect micro-management, “avoid taking responsibility” and “can’t make decisions on their own.”

Direct versus Indirect Language
While of course no two individuals from any culture are alike, project team members from relationship-focused, hierarchical cultures tend to use indirect, vague language to avoid losing face or offending others. They especially learn never to say ‘no’ to their boss. In contrast, most task-focused managers expect subordinates to use straightforward language, to express disagreement directly. Hence the most frequent comment we hear from Western participants in our China and India workshops is, “Why can’t they say no?” and “Why do our colleagues say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’?”
Bridging the Culture Gap
A number of U.S. and northern European companies have found ways to minimize the frustrations and improve communication between project leaders and their international team members:
1. Increase the frequency of face-to-face project team meetings, both at home and abroad.
2. Provide thorough interactive training for project managers and other home office staff.
3. As often as possible bring international team members to the home office for orientation, training and cultural immersion.
These three proven steps have helped task-focused project managers create shared cultures with their international colleagues, thereby meeting the tough challenges of managing multicultural project teams.
Richard R. Gesteland, Global Management LLC
Published in Personalechefen , April 2011

Managing People Across Cultures: Corrective Interviews

Doing many periodic performance evaluations and corrective interviews in Europe and the U.S. taught me some simple rules. In Chicago, following corporate policy, I started with the good news: the areas where the employee was doing well. Next we discussed the performance elements that required improvement and ended with an upbeat conclusion.
Variations of this approach worked well in Vienna and Florence later – though with some of my Italian employees, extra sweetening was needed to make the bitter pill of criticism easier to swallow. It was much the same story during my two assignments in New Delhi.
Then came Frankfurt. Right from the start my German subordinates seemed confused by this “sandwich” style of performance assessment. Rainer, one of the senior people, looked at me with a puzzled expression and responded, “I do not understand. Are you satisfied with my work here or not?” So for the rest of my assignment in Germany I decided to just tell it like it was. Politely of course, but straight from the shoulder.
The biggest culture shock for me was our third time in Asia. As regional manager for South and Southeast Asia based in Singapore, I had to open liaison offices throughout the region. First Bangkok, then Manila, Jakarta, Madras, Karachi, Dhaka and Chittagong.
The cultures of our employees in this region differed not only from those in Europe and the U.S., but from one Asian country to another. For example, in Singapore I could praise individuals in staff meetings for stellar performance. And the most effective way to conduct periodic assessments was to make sure the “sandwich” was fairly thick.
But the expectations of my employees’ in the rest of that large region were different. In most of Southeast Asia, as in Japan, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” So you praise teams rather than individuals, and you dole out criticism is small doses and as indirectly as possible. ‘Face’ is the key issue.
Very instructive was a corrective interview I observed while visiting my German friend Max, manager of his company’s Bangkok office. My visit happened to coincide with that of Dr. Schultz, Max’s boss from the Nürnberg head office. The previous day Dr. Schultz had criticized two recent reports written by Somchai, the senior Thai employee, and directed Max to reprimand him.
The conference room had glass walls so I was able to observe the corrective interview while seated near the big boss from Nürnberg. Throughout the 45-minute meeting we saw Max smiling, pouring tea and engaging in dialog with Somchai. At the end of the interview Max handed the Thai some papers. Somchai left the conference room smiling and wen to his own office.


Moments later I couldn’t help overhearing Schultz indignantly asking Max why he’d had a “friendly social chat” with the errant Thai instead of “straightening him out properly.” I missed my friend’s reply, but Max filled me in the next morning over coffee.
“Normally I would have taken Somchai out of the office for tea, but Dr. Schultz wanted it done ‘right now’. So I asked him about his father’s gall bladder operation, how his kid sister was doing with her English lessons, where we should have the next office picnic, and so on. Then I mentioned that his last two reports were not quite up to his usual high standards and asked him to review them. This morning when I arrived, the revisions were on my desk – excellent.
“Obviously Somchai would have lost face if his junior Thai colleagues had gained the impression that he was being chewed out. Maybe Somchai, a very valuable employee, would have resigned. In that case half our staff would have walked out with him.”
By that time I had figured out that in a few cultures of northern Europe – especially Germany – the direct approach in such meetings works best. In Italy, where rispetto is so important, as well as in the rest of southern Europe and parts of Asia, people react better to a softer style. But in most of the ASEAN region, criticism is best delivered as indirectly as possible.
While face is a universal human concern, in Asia it is a paramount value in managing people.

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