Cultural differences influence
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on 29th May 2017.
It’s common knowledge that cultural differences influence the success or failure of business ventures and professional relationships. A rash American could easily offend Japanese partners by failing to respect their organizational hierarchy and the status of their leader; A meticulous German might unnecessarily stress-out and demotivate a Thai team by insisting that every meeting begin at exactly the scheduled time; and an Asian leader may frustrate and limit their European employee by providing too much instruction and too little autonomy. What is less commonly known is that there is a wealth of research and leadership practices designed to enable businesses and professionals to not only effectively navigate these differences, but to use them to their advantage.
Bangkok professionals are not strangers to the difficulties created by cultural differences, and the need to navigate cross-cultural relationships effectively is becoming more important than ever. The city’s historic position as a Hub for the high growth ASEAN region, and the fact that many multi-national companies, such as Exxon Mobil, Huawei, and Unilever have set up regional offices in the city, has required professionals here to constantly build and maintain a culturally diverse range of business relationships. Furthermore, over the past few years Thai conglomerates such as Central Group, and Charoen Pokphand Group have significantly increased their foreign M&A activities. This coupled with the Thai government’s announced efforts to create an “investment-friendly environment” and a Deloitte & Touche report confirming that in 2017 Thailand will be an attractive M&A market, indicates an ever-increasing need for professionals who are skilled at managing cross-cultural relationships.
Fortunately, significant research on cross-cultural differences and effectiveness has been conducted over the past 40 years by researchers such as Greet Hofstede, and Erin Meyer. Their work reveals several key principles helpful to international professionals. To elaborate on these principles, we provide examples based on generalized research findings. It’s critical to keep in mind no one description fits every individual, and the differences are not absolute but comparative. For example, Americans are more transactional than relationship focused, this does not mean they do not care about relationships only that they will prioritize completing discrete tasks over relations more often than other cultures.
Perhaps the most important insight from the literature is that Cultural differences go deeper than language and behaviour, they are rooted in a society’s shared values and beliefs. For example, Japanese and Thai employees tend to demonstrate more respect and grant more authority to their leaders than Americans or Germans would. Yet, have we taken the next step to understand that this behaviour is rooted in the belief that organizations must have strong decision making hierarchies? In such an environment loyalty and deference to authority are highly valued, while disagreeing with authority is de-valued and seen as a threat to the group’s success. This explains why it can be extremely difficult for what Hofstede calls “High Power Distance” cultures (e.g. Japanese, Thai, and Chinese) to express serious disagreement to leaders. Disagreeing directly conflicts with their underlying belief in the importance of deferring to authority.
Readers, from countries like the USA, the UK, and Germany, may be nodding their heads having experienced the above problem countless times. It can be tempting for them to believe that a behaviour like voicing disagreements in meetings is the only way to run a successful business. However, In the book “What is Global Leadership” Ernest Gundling and his co-authors recommend professionals “seek cultural self-awareness” and understand that their methods are not necessarily better than those of other cultures. The fact that the 5 countries with the most Global Fortune 500 companies (the USA, China, Japan, France, and Germany) all have strikingly different cultural profiles is strong evidence for this. Cultural awareness is important because without that understanding of differing beliefs and values cross-cultural colleagues will continuously misinterpret each other’s behaviour.
The differences across cultures globally can be categorized into approximately 8 dimensions and the ‘cultural profiles’ of many countries is document. Several research based models are used for this including, Greet Hofstede’s model first developed from IBM research conducted in the 1970s, Frans Trompenaars’ Model and The Intercultural Awareness Model (ICAM)©. The models have a high degree of similarity with each-other and have all been validated through extensive global data collection.
ICAM Control Dimension, reveals an interesting cultural aspect that Thai’s share Malaysians and Vietnamese, in that they are more externally oriented, meaning they believe external factors have a greater influence on success than the factors under their control. Therefore following rules and procedures to mitigate risk is highly valued, and it’s comparatively less important to evaluate performance based on outcomes which can be influenced by chance. This is a mentality that differs drastically from the perspectives of the Americans, English and Japanese who might be incredulous to hear an employee dare justify a failure by appealing to external factors. Thai Culture also has some interesting aspects in the ICAM dimensions of Time, and Motivation which can lead to equally frustrating outcomes for all parties.
So are we doomed to forever misunderstand each other? Must we sacrifice our core cultural values and adapt to the work group’s prevailing culture? Fortunately no. Research conducted by DiversityInc demonstrates that if managed well, culturally diverse teams often out-perform less diverse teams. Additionally, the ability to effectively work in and manage culturally diverse teams is a learnable skill-set. Professionals seeking to improve can study the cultural differences in play, hold empathetic conversations, establish new expectations based on shared values, stay flexible, and be on the lookout for win-win solutions. A variety of online resources, workshops, and coaching solutions are available to anyone interested in leveraging improved cross-cultural relationships.
By: Justin Paul, a Fortune 500 HR leader & consultant, has helped executives in over 20 countries build their leadership capability. He is currently the CEO of Latchmere Performance Solutions Ltd, Co. Info@latchmereconsulting.com
& Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, has 46 years business experience in Thailand, Providing regional forums, seminars and reports helping business capitalize on future trends. email@example.com