A Tale of Two German CEOs: The Simple Step that Can Make or Break Cross-Cultural Management

Although the saying, “opposites attract,” may be true in some cases, most of the friends you have probably have similar traits or interests to yourself.

A similar background.

Similar values.

The same language.

The same culture.

Because we like “sameness” in our friendships, expats and international managers might find it difficult to forge hearty relationships with those of other cultures.

In fact, they may fall into one of the three categories of expats who stick to themselves.

Our preference for sameness is due to our favoring the familiar over the unfamiliar, the known over the unknown, and comfort over discomfort.

We tend toward sameness because it reduces potential friction or conflict.

Initiating a friendship with someone from a different cultural background, therefore, can seem like a hurdle. And maintaining one looks more like an obstacle course. 

However, in a cross-cultural environment, as an expat or foreign manager, one must be able to bridge the divide, overriding these initial levels of discomfort in order to build and maintain friendships with people of other cultures.

CEO Hans

Let’s revisit our favorite German CEO, Hans.

Hans relocated to Switzerland to become the CEO of a major Swiss company that belonged to a German group.

Only, Hans fell short: he had no interest in integration.

Not only did he not wish to culturally integrate, but he had no desire to become part of the local business community either.

His goal was to build his career in Germany.

His disinterest in getting to know people and detachment from the culture was blindingly apparent to his Swiss employees.

Instead of coming together cohesively, the company unraveled.

Cut to a few years later. It became apparent that Hans was floundering in Switzerland. So the German group acted accordingly.

Enter, Karl.

CEO Karl

Karl was sent to take Hans’ place.

This German CEO immediately set out to make local friends in Zurich. He demonstrated a true interest in Swiss culture and cultivated a local network of business contacts and personal friends.

As a result, the environment of the company shifted dramatically. The atmosphere was no longer terse or tense, and the employees felt more engaged with each other, their boss, and their work.

Karl understood that in order for businesses to succeed, a common business culture must be built.

And that started with him.

He had to lay the foundation upon which to build, and he did this by taking action, encouraging demonstrations of respect and understanding across cultures – and throughout the company.

Mid-level and senior management worked together much more fluidly – all because Karl chose to take this fairly simple step of showing his openness to the new culture and to new friendships.

While not everyone is a people-person like Karl, fortunately, there are strategies to help you build and maintain cross-cultural friendships, no matter your personality type.

We’ll discuss these strategies in the coming weeks.

The Simplest Way to Clear Up Cultural Conflicts: Ask a Local

My wife and I moved to Spain in my early days as a CEO.

We wanted to bond with locals to better understand the culture, ease our integration, and, of course, make friends.

Sharing time with local friends will allow you to learn about both the visible and invisible parts of the cultural baobab.

Whether it’s local cuisine, festivals, customs and rituals, greetings, dress codes, body language, taboos, etc., a local friend will always be better able to explain to you the values and norms of their culture, often better than any textbook can.

This is what my wife and I were looking for – a respectful and open encounter between two cultures.

And Spain seemed the perfect place for just such an encounter, as the culture is warm and open, easy to connect with, especially in comparison to my more reserved native Swiss culture.

The Invitation

So, we decided to throw a dinner party, and we invited friends over to our place.

We prepared everything; cooked an elaborate meal, arranged our table, and watched the clock, waiting for our special guests to arrive.

The time came and went. Nothing.

No one showed up.

We double checked the date to see if there was some sort of misunderstanding. Nothing seemed out of line.

After debating what might have happened, we chalked it up to forgetfulness on their part and, later, invited another group of friends over.

They didn’t show up either.

And a third time. Again, no one.

Were we social pariahs?

Cultural Etiquette

Fortunately, we weren’t. We just didn’t know what social etiquette in Spain commonly dictated of a host.

On the third no-show, we finally did what we should have done the first time: we asked one of the invitees why he didn’t come.

His response?

“You didn’t call to confirm the day before, so I assumed dinner was canceled.”

This baffled us. 

It’s typical in Switzerland for plans to be made far in advance without necessitating a confirmation.

You could set up a dinner date half a year in advance with friends, and the guests would show up right on time.

We had assumed sameness and the result was crossed wires.

This is the missing link in most cross-cultural conflicts: a piece of social etiquette that you weren’t aware of or didn’t quite understand.

We learned a lesson that day.

If faced with any cultural conflict, simply ask (the first time) when you are confused by something.

Usually, the conflict will be cleared up straight away with no hard feelings…that is, if you can dredge up a bit of cross-cultural understanding.