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Cross-Culture Work in a Global Economy

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NEGOTIATIONS

Cross-Culture Work in a
Global Economy
Erin Meyer, affiliate professor at INSEAD and author of The Culture Map, on why memorizing a list of etiquette rules doesn’t work. For more, read the article, Navigating the
Cultural Minefield.

14:47

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah
Green. I’m talking today with Erin Meyer, an Affiliate Professor of Organizational
Management at INSEAD. She’s the author of the book, The Culture Map, and of the HBR article, “Navigating the Cultural Minefield.” Erin, thanks so much for talking with us today.

ERIN MEYER: Thank you, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: So let’s just start by tell us what The Culture Map is. And tell us a little bit about why you developed it, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve.

ERIN MEYER: I became very interested in researching how cultural differences were impacting business people, because I found that, although the world has changed quite dramatically over the last 15 years, the discourse around management hasn’t kept up with it. So just to give you an example of this, I was just in a bookstore yesterday. And I picked up a book about negotiations, a new book written by an American author.

And as I’m looking through it, I can tell that the implicit assumption by the author is that the people who are negotiating, who are reading the book, are going to be negotiating with people who come from their own culture. But this isn’t the case anymore. I mean, every year we’re working more and more with people all over the world.

So the question, I think, that every leader needs to ask himself is, do I have the skills necessary to lead in a global economy? Do I know how to adapt my motivational style to motivate my Chinese employees differently than I would motivate my employees from
Brazil? And do I know how to negotiate a deal differently when I’m negotiating with suppliers in India? And do I understand how to do that differently to get the best deal when
I’m negotiating with people in Sweden? And that’s what I’ve tried to do in my book, in The
Culture Map, is to provide a system that helps people to decode how culture is impacting their day-to-day work, and then provide strategies for helping them to improve their effectiveness when working in this very complex, multicultural world that we are now working in.

SARAH GREEN: And so you have actually taken a number of different kind of criteria and mapped them out all along a spectrum. And then you can kind of plot different countries on the spectrum. And what I found interesting about this approach was that you go beyond just communication to talk about specific activities like evaluating performance, and disagreement, and persuasion, and how these things work differently in different cultures.
Why did you think it was so important to get that level of specificity in there?

ERIN MEYER: Well, I wanted to be really specific because I think that, if you just give people a concept and they don’t understand how to apply it, that the information is interesting, but perhaps not so useful. So I wanted to be specific. I wanted to scale to help people to really pinpoint what it is that they can do differently in their day-to-day work in order to be more effective.

In addition, I also found that people have a tendency to typecast cultures on just one or two scales. And then that leads them into traps. So for example, well, let’s say you have an
American who’s working with a French person. And he might think, OK, well, I know the

French are really implicit. So that would lead him to then assume that the French are also less direct with negative feedback, which is not the case.

In French culture, they are more implicit communicators than Americans are. But they’re also much more direct with negative feedback than Americans are. And this can cause a problem if you don’t understand these discrepancies, because you might have a French employee who’s working for an American and who then misunderstands the American’s tendency to give three positives with every negative as an actual compliment. Meaning that the American might think he’s given poor feedback. And the French person might leave that same meeting thinking that he’s just received good feedback. So in any case, The
Culture Map allows you to pinpoint how cultures change from one scale to another and see both the similarities and differences in a concrete way.

SARAH GREEN: And it’s interesting because, throughout the piece, you have these kinds of reminders about this is all relative. And depending on where you are on the scale, certain practices may look differently to you. Because I think, to your point about globalization, we’re not just going across two cultures. We’re often moving between three or four cultures, or even more. So can you just spend a little bit more time talking a little bit about what that looks like in practice, when you’ve got a Brazilian and an Indian and an America all in a room, how that kind of relativity plays out?

ERIN MEYER: Yeah. So maybe I’ll just give you an example. So this is actually an example from the book, but I think it’s one that people experience all of the time.

I was working a little while ago with a global team. And at the beginning on the team, I had both Americans and French people that were working together. And I asked the Americans what’s it like to work with the French. And they gave me an answer I had heard many times. They said, well, Erin, you know the French.

They said, the French, they’re always late. They’re really chaotic. They’re really disorganized. They’re always changing the topic in the middle of the meeting, which makes it very difficult to follow them. And they were frustrated with their perception of what it was like working with the French.

But then a little bit later, I had a group from India that joined the same team. And after they had been working together for a while, I asked the Indians what’s it like to work with the
French. And the Indians said to me, well, Erin, you know French.

They said, you know, they’re so rigid. And they’re so inflexible. They’re so focused on the structure and punctuality of things that they’re unable to adapt as things change around them. And if you don’t tell them weeks in advance exactly what’s going to happen in the meeting, in what order, it makes them very nervous.

All right. So here we have this American and Indian culture that are having two totally opposite impressions of the French culture. And you can see that, if you look at The
Culture Map tool that I work with, you can see on what I call, The Scheduling Scale, which is the scale that looks at time orientation, you can see that the French culture falls somewhere in the middle on a world scale. But it falls halfway between where the US would fall and where India falls, which leads to this opposite perception on the same culture. And this type of relativity, I experience this every day in my work. Then I was working with some Chinese a few days ago doing some interviews. And they were talking with me about how startling it was to them that the French were so egalitarian. One of them said, you know, it’s amazing the French really think that everybody is totally equal. And if you ask any British person who’s been working in France, they’ll tell you how extremely hierarchical they are.

So this is really important. I think this relativity is really important for today, because maybe 20 years ago, most of us who were working internationally, either we were business travelers, or are we were ex-patriots. And that meant that, mostly, you just had to understand one other culture was like and how that culture compared to your own culture.
But for leaders today who are working in multinational organizations, that is not enough.
You have to understand now how each culture perceives one another so that you can better facilitate the sometimes very complicated interactions.

SARAH GREEN: Well, and that, I think, for me, raises a question about some of the cultures you mentioned are closer together than I, maybe, would have assumed. And others seem further apart then I would have assumed. Did you run across pairings like that, that were either closer than you would assume, or further apart than you would have assumed?

ERIN MEYER: Well, often cultural pairings don’t line up with our stereotypes. And I’ll give you two examples of that. One is that, in the West, we have a tendency to think that all
Asian countries are more or less the same. So we might talk about Japanese culture and
Chinese culture thinking, well, jeez, those cultures are 90% alike. And you really couldn’t be further from the truth.

On the eight-scale culture map that I work with, it is true that six of the scales, China and
Japan fall relatively similar to one another, although the difference between them is still noticeable. But then there’s two scales where those two cultures fall on opposite ends. And one of them is the scheduling scale where we look at time orientation where the Japanese are very linear time, which means that they’re very focused on punctuality, and structure, and organization, being organized. And the Chinese are highly flexible time, which means they’re very focused on reactivity, and changing things as you go. And adaptability is more important than flexibility. So there’s that one big gap.

And then there’s another big gap on the map that looks at how decisions are made differently from one culture to another. And the Japanese are, perhaps, the most consensual society in the world, meaning that decisions are made in groups, by consensus, bottom up. And the Chinese culture is a highly top-down society, which means decisions are made by the boss in a top-down manner. So if you’re managing both Japanese and
Chinese, you need to understand these differences. Thinking that they’re the same it’s just going to end up getting you in trouble.

And then the second pairing that I think is perhaps interesting is that we do have some research that indicates that the most difficult cultural move is not, let’s say– I don’t know–
Americans moving to China, as you might think, but is actually Americans moving to the
UK. So we’ve seen that Americans moving to the UK have a higher expatriate failure rate than Americans moving to Asia. And that arises because of something that I call “cultural

dissonance,” which means that when you’re working with another culture that speaks another language, where people have a different physical appearance, they eat different kinds of food, the culture is really obvious to you, meaning that you recognize that the culture is different. So if you have an American moving to China, you think, wow, Chinese culture is going to be so different from my own. So I really have to be ready to be flexible.

But when you have two cultures where people speak the same language and physically don’t look very different, people underestimate the difficulty. And then they are less flexible, which often leads them to get frustrated more easily. And Americans moving to the UK is a classic example of that where the American moves to London thinking, well, mostly, I’m just focused on my strategy. And then after a while, when cultural issues start to arise, he thinks these British are incompetent, instead of thinking there’s something cultural that I need to understand here.

So that’s only important that, when you’re looking at the framework, at The Culture Map, that you recognize that small gaps matter. You don’t have to be moving from the left side to the right side. You might just be moving a little bit of a nudge to the right, or a little bit of a nudge the left, and it’s still impacting you.

SARAH GREEN: Well, and it’s interesting that you mention these different examples, because I think a lot of the business and managerial advice I have read over the years is giving etiquette rules that you’re supposed to memorize. But what I’m getting from you is that this is way too complicated to try to just memorize some rules. So what are some things people could do in the absence of having a guidebook to inhale?

ERIN MEYER: Well, I do think, just to mention that, I think that often people worry a lot about etiquette when they travel to another country. They worry about how am I going to shake hands, or what are people expecting me to wear. And I found with these superficial elements that, today, with globalization, most managers are pretty accepting of cultural differences. They are working with someone from another culture. And they give business cards in a way that’s different than you would in your country, or they don’t shake hands the way you would in your country, we forgive each other. There’s no big deal. We just recognize, oh, OK, we’re culturally different.

But when it comes to these deeper issues, like what leads us to feel trust for somebody, or what leads us to feel persuaded by an issue, and those are the things that are really impacting our international business today. So I think the best thing that a manager can do is to show a lot of humility, a lot of curiosity, and to recognize that this is an ongoing learning process, that we never become experts on it. But that the more you learn to decode these differences, the more successful you can be.

SARAH GREEN: Erin, thanks again, so much, for chatting with us today.

ERIN MEYER: Thank you, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: That was Erin Meyer of INSEAD. Her book is The Culture Map. And her
HBR article is, “Navigating the Cultural Minefield.” For more, including Erin’s blog posts, visit hbr.org.

This article is about NEGOTIATIONS

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