Open Hearts, Open Minds: How Much Should a Foreign Manager Expect to Accept & Adapt to the Culture?

Say, you’re a store manager at a retail company, and you’ve been sent abroad to work out the kinks at your sister store in Tokyo. You’re a fish out of water, a monkey out of his home tree, and your managerial style isn’t gelling too well with that of Japanese culture.

The big question: Do you expect your employees to adapt to you and your culture? Or do you expect to adapt to them?

The Cultural Baobab

If you work at an international company, the company culture is usually fairly uniform the world over…but not entirely.

When you’re sent to manage abroad, you’re still working and living in a foreign culture. Just because these employees work for your company doesn’t mean they’ve fully accepted, adapted, and adopted your culture’s practices or behaviors.

We’ve talked a lot about the cultural baobab and how, by identifying and understand its roots (values) and limbs (social norms), you’ll better understand the culture, as a whole.

The point is that living and working successfully in a foreign culture always starts with one thing:

Accept

Accept your host culture as it is.

Don’t fight it.

Don’t condemn it.

Don’t judge it.

This will make managing in the culture a whole lot easier.

Think about it: as the monkey in their baobab, instead of complaining about the branches as you swing from limb to limb, instead of criticizing the roots that grew this tree and spitting out the seeds from its fruits, you should be curious about it, you should admire it, and you should find a home in it.

Accept that your culture’s tree isn’t the only tree in the world. It’s not the superior baobab. It’s not the center of the universe. Accept that there is more than one type of beauty.

There’s a myriad of ways to live life, to organize a society, and to run a business.

Once you recognize this, you’ll see the beauty in this foreign baobab, from the roots to the canopy.

Integrate

In order to successfully manage in a foreign culture, you must integrate into that culture. If you don’t appreciate the beauty of your host nation’s baobab, your employees and colleagues will know it and integration will be null and void.

Accepting doesn’t mean you have to adapt or adopt everything in your host culture, nor must you idolize it.

Accepting does mean that you must make an effort to seek the good in everything with which you are unfamiliar, instead of immediately condemning it as “bad,” because it is foreign to your own values and way of life.

Now, that’s not to say everything about a foreign culture is easy to accept. We’ll talk about how to deal with adverse reactions to your host culture next week.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.

Values: What Are They & How Do They Shape Culture?

You often hear various groups and cultures talk about their “values.”

But what are values, really?

Are they only ideals? How are they put into practice?

Values are practiced ideals; they’re principles or standards to live by. In a culture, they distinguish between what is important or unimportant. What is worth fighting for and what is not. What is good and what is evil and, correspondingly, who is good and who is evil.

Values are a culture’s unwritten rule of law. In fact, sometimes, a culture’s values influence the nation’s written laws.

Swiss Values

Let’s take a look at Swiss values, for example.

According to ediplomat, “The Swiss value cleanliness, honesty, (and) hard work…They value sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and a sense of responsibility.”

Swiss values also include environmentalism, freedom, orderliness, neutrality, and world peace. We’re also savers and are proud of the material wealth that accompanies economic responsibility.

You can see these values come to life in our culture. In the way we dress, the way we behave, the way we live.

Walk down any street in Geneva, and you’ll notice several things: gorgeous greenery, an absence of litter, Swiss people dressed clean and neat and, yes, plenty of wealth.

You can also see these values in our policies and politics.

The Swiss unadjusted unemployment rate rarely exceeds 4% and dropped to 3% in June of 2017, which is less than the average 4-12% unemployment in other developed countries. This may be partially attributed to our values of hard work and our sense of responsibility.

Being a neutral nation, we’re also not a member state of NATO. We are, however, members of the Partnership for Peace, which cooperates with NATO on crisis-management training and operations, as well as humanitarian missions.

This is how cultural values are made manifest: putting into practice the ideals that are most important to you and your broader culture.

Swiss Values-turned-Laws

You can see Swiss values represented in written law, as well.

Take jaywalking, for example.

In many countries around the world, a slap on the wrist is the most you’ll get for jaywalking. In fact, in most places, you won’t even get that – it’s acceptable to cross the street wherever and whenever you choose.

But, in Switzerland, our values of orderliness, sobriety and our sense of responsibility come into play yet again. Jaywalkers are disturbing the order of things and aren’t taking the risk of potential pedestrian fatality seriously. Therefore, jaywalkers are fined on the spot by police if caught in the act.

This is just one of many written laws and unwritten norms that exemplify our values in Switzerland. Next week, we’ll talk about the difference between individualist and collectivist cultures and where their values diverge.

The Cult of Company Culture

Last week, we talked about how national cultures can be divided into regional cultures and subcultures. This goes a step further.

Companies have their own culture, as well.

That’s because whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture. And the way that companies build is often with this cultish veneration of shared ideals – ideals they wish each and every one of their employees to hold true.

Company culture has become a selling point for employment. When Starbucks or Tesla is hoping to hire the best, they must promise a thriving ecosystem to work within…an ecosystem with plenty of incentives and inclusivity.

Here’s a look at how some companies got it right, and where others have got it wrong.

Popular Company Cultures

Google famously treats its employees to an “adult playground,” with perks like gyms, swimming pools, video games, nap pods, free haircuts, on-site physicians. You name it.

This has driven Google’s success, encouraging employees to be more creative, productive and to think outside the box.

Netflix, as well, have become renowned for their company culture manifesto. They strive for inclusivity and are averse to the so-called “brilliant jerk” that you might identify with Silicon Valley.

In fact, they only retain those who pass a “keeper test” – that is, managers choose whether or not they’d fight to keep their respective employees, and if they wouldn’t, they’re let go. This way, their culture is cultivating only the best of the best.

Netflix’s primary aim is to motivate its workers, as is shown in its most recent culture doc, which closes with this stanza by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship,

don’t drum up the people

to gather wood, divide the

work, and give orders.

 

Instead, teach them to yearn

for the vast and endless sea.

Pretty inspiring stuff, right?

Unpopular Company Cultures

Like Google or Netflix, you can build up your employees through incentives, inspiration, and inclusivity…or, like Uber, you can build a toxic company culture through ineffective human resources, vague company values, and company crisis after company crisis.

Uber’s company culture has been described as “aggressive” and “unrestrained.” In this past year, sexual discrimination and harassment led to an internal crisis that has played out in the media.

However, with new leadership on board, the company’s values are changing, as is Uber’s ability to surface problems more quickly. The company can still evolve its culture, turn it around, and build something that its employees are proud to build with them.

Company Culture -> National Culture

As with company cultures, values can either be promoted or condemned by national culture. Management is the driving force in actively shaping their company culture’s values, and a nation’s leaders – politicians, scientists, writers, artists, actors, business leaders, or other influential peoples – shape ours.

Next week, we’ll talk about these values, how they are formed, and what they mean to you.