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Cracking Cultural Differences in a Global Organization

Sara Baack, Chief Product Officer

Consider for a moment, the following scenarios:

A French leader is transferred from Paris to the U.S. to lead a team of Americans. After some time, her new boss feels she is struggling in the role, and doesn’t seem to be listening to his feedback. But from the French leader’s point of view, she is crushing it.

A Brazilian team in a global organization invites a set of new colleagues from the U.S. to a two-day meeting to plan an integration project together. Not wanting to waste time, the Americans jump in early on day one with their thoughts about the project and goals they want to achieve during the planning session.  

During a conference call attended by senior colleagues across Asia-Pacific and EMEA, the leaders in Germany and the U.K. debate the compensation plan for the sales organization. Their Japanese colleague remains silent during the call.  

What’s the common theme in all of these? Cultural differences are at play. 

It’s becoming clear, sometimes painfully, that business success in our ever more globalized and virtual world requires some pretty nuanced skills to navigate through cultural differences and decode cultures foreign to our own – not just those of our partners and customers but our coworkers as well. This is treacherous terrain, where multinational teams and people from starkly different backgrounds – spread across the world ¬– are expected to work harmoniously together. Both intra-team and customer dynamics are at stake.

Never have I been so sensitive to clashing cultural assumptions as I have since working at Equinix. We are truly an international network of people scattered literally around the world. I consider myself fairly well-traveled and informed, but in this vast and ever-changing landscape, I know I’m constantly just one misunderstanding away from sticking a culturally clueless foot in my mouth.

That’s why I was excited to discover – at the airport bookstore on my way to EMEA – a book by Erin Meyer called “The Culture Map,” which is based on the author’s work at INSEAD, the “Business School for the World”, in Paris. She provides a new way forward into this brave new world and marketplace – a field-tested model that combines an analytical framework with practical advice. The book is also stuffed with real-life stories from around the world that bring this framework to life and impart important lessons about global teamwork and international collaboration.

For instance, I learned about:

  • Communication and feedback. Some cultures like the United States are known for “low context” communication styles, where people communicate quite directly and typically should be interpreted at face value. This is unlike other cultures like France or China that are “high context” communication cultures, where communication is more nuanced and reading between the lines is more expected. And yet, when it comes to giving evaluative feedback, Americans tend to be more indirect, often softening critical feedback inside of a “praise sandwich” while the French are much more direct in criticism. No wonder it was so difficult for the French woman in the example above to understand how her boss felt she was performing – she expected critical feedback to be,well, more directly critical.

  • Building trust. Ms. Meyer explains that some cultures build trust more through “cognitive” means – objective achievements, track records, etc. Others build trust more through “affective” means, or the creation of intimate personal relationships. So, in the example above in Brazil it might be puzzling, or even upsetting, when the Americans arrive wanting to dive in head first, work through lunch, and crank out some planning. Meanwhile, the Americans don’t understand why the Brazil team wants to stay out so late having capirinas, when in fact in Brazil that is part of the work, of establishing a relationship foundation with a new team.

  • Constructive conflict. Engaging in constructive conflict and debate can also be very different across cultures. For instance in Asia, there is much more emphasis on “saving face.” Showing respect and deference can often be more important than voicing a disagreement or arguing a point, even when a final decision is imminent. Meanwhile, in the German culture, disagreements are expected to be out in the open – their culture is one that separates critique of an idea from critique of a person. 

At Equinix, we are lucky to have a set of culture and values, and operating norms – a common Equinix “language” if you will – that helps all of us understand how to best relate to one another. That said, Ms. Meyer’s perspective is both highly insightful and wonderfully practical, and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand cross-cultural differences and norms.

So, how about we hear from you! What is a sticky situation you’ve found yourself in while working with people from a different culture, and how did it play out? I’d love to learn from you!

The original article was published here.

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