Using Stereotypes Wisely: German Planning vs. Russian Improvisation

Meet Ralf.

Ralf is a German manager and the head of business development. His company is expanding into Russia.

Vlad, the Russian project manager, calls him one morning from St. Petersburg, where he’s aiding the opening of the new office.

“Planning is underway,” Vlad confirms. “Everything will be completed by the deadline.”

Ralf asks some follow-up questions, pressing for further details to ensure things are, indeed, on track, but he finds that despite Vlad’s initial assurances, his responses are vague.

“At this point, only the rough planning is done,” Vlad admits, adding, “but everything is under control.”

Needless to say, after this phone call, Ralf does not feel confident that his ducks are in a row, while Vlad feels he was being interrogated.

Stereotype: Russians Don’t Like to Plan

When Ralf shares his concerns with his boss, he says: “Don’t worry, the office will be finished according to schedule. Russians aren’t good at planning. They say that if you plan too much, you can’t demonstrate your improvisational skills.”

Although Ralf’s boss employed a stereotype to placate his worries, there is truth in this stereotype.

According to scientific studies, Russians generally do not prioritize detailed planning as much as Germans or Austrians. They’d prefer to resolve issues as they occur instead of predicting and investing time in future issues.

Ralf’s boss responded with a stereotype, but his response alleviated Ralf’s stress and may have diffused misunderstanding and potential conflict in the company’s cross-cultural business relations.

One reason this stereotype could be considered wise is that it was explanatory; it allowed Ralf to better understand the rationale behind his Russian counterpart’s behaviors.

Stereotype: Germans Like Detailed Planning

Back in St. Petersburg, Vlad sensed Ralf’s lack of confidence in his management of the project. Being a bit annoyed, he, too, mentioned the exchange to his boss.

Vlad’s boss tells him: “Germans like to plan. Their plans are concrete and detailed, down to the letter. They anticipate potential issues and their variable responses to these issues in order to use time efficiently and reduce risk.”

This is another stereotype. It’s generally true that Germans view time as a resource that shouldn’t be wasted, hence they invest in detailed planning.

This, too, is backed by data making it, more or less, the norm.

This is one way in which stereotypes can aid mutual understanding, allay worries and unnecessary stress, and prevent cross-cultural conflict.

Stereotypes Exaggerate the Norm

Despite the sometimes-usefulness of stereotypes, it’s important to note that stereotypes aren’t all-encompassing and tend to exaggerate norms.

Not every German is a planner and not every Russian likes to improvise.

To illustrate this exaggeration, consider these graphs.

monkey_charts_CMYK-16

The top graph shows how Russians view their own penchant for planning. They acknowledge that improvisation is valued as much as planning, leaving the curve centered.

The next graph shows the Russian perspective on the German penchant for planning. Russians view Germans as planning fanatics, leading to most Germans falling under this stereotypical umbrella right of center.

In the end, the reality is more like the last chart. Germans are, on average, slightly more adept at planning than Russians, and the German company culture often produces and favors managers who work accordingly. However, this stereotype doesn’t apply so severely to all Germans, though the Russian perspective exaggerates that view.

Point being, take stereotypes with a grain of salt.

Their primary use in business management should be to provide generic odds and a general understanding of the values a culture prioritizes.

But don’t let stereotypes color your opinion about another individual in an ugly way, especially if their actions show you the opposite.

As Maya Angelou wisely wrote,

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

Adapting: The Second Step in Cross-Cultural Management

Over the last few weeks, we’ve laid out the first step of cross-cultural management: acceptance.

Accepting another’s culture, values, and norms as different than your own, while foregoing judgment, accepting ambiguity, tolerating actively, and explaining yourself is the best way to get your toes wet in a new culture.

But we have yet to talk about wading into the shallows of the culture in the form of adapting.

If you dig in your heels at acceptance, then your degree of cross-cultural integration is limited. 

Doing so will certainly help you blend into your host culture, particularly as a manager;  however, at some point, you will find that you must adapt to some aspects of the new culture, or you’ll be forever an outsider.

As the German manager did in his Swiss company, taking your integration a step further by altering your behavior will make the culture accept you.

This is called adapting.

Adapting

First of all, how is adapting different than adopting?

Adapting involves changing your behavior but not your values.

For instance, you are being hosted by a country that bows in greeting as opposed to shaking hands.

As a courtesy, you adapt to this behavior. You bow.

But no doubt, your values haven’t changed; shaking hands is still your preferred greeting based upon your values.

Working across cultures, you might choose to accept and adapt those behaviors whose values are valid and do not impose on your own.

After all, a change in values involves a significant life-altering transformation. More often than not, that takes time.

While such a transformation may come, depending upon how long you remain in your host country and how impacted you are by their culture, until that impact happens, small adaptions will show your hosts that you respect their culture and are making an attempt to integrate where you can.

Cost/Value

The bottom line when deciding what to adapt to and what to simply accept is drawn by the personal cost to you versus the value behavioral changes may add to your life in this new culture and your success as a manager.

Does adhering to the culture’s dress code come at a significant cost to you? Does the value of “fitting in” outweigh whatever cost that may be?

Those values and norms which are not in direct contradiction to your own culture’s should be easy enough to adapt and should be what you actively implement first.

Although the behavior may feel unfamiliar (greeting your French colleague by a kiss on both cheeks, for instance), after normal processing, such behaviors will feel more or less natural.

In fact, give it time, and you may not even notice you’ve adapted to another culture.

Next week, we’ll discuss the type of adaptions that you will notice and how to get over that discomfort. Stay tuned.

Acceptance: The First Step in Cross-Cultural Management

The first step in bridging any conflict is acceptance.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean approval; it just means you are not whipping out your red pen and labeling something “bad” or “wrong” before engaging with it in a thoughtful manner.

Acceptance means tolerance.

When you’re no longer actively butting your head against something unmovable, you are demonstrating your willingness to engage with that with which you are unfamiliar or may not inherently agree.

And to work in a cross-cultural environment, you will have to engage in various ways. Change is inevitable.

So, how do you relinquish judgment and accept another culture’s values and norms?

Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong

Cultural values define what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, making each of us innate judges of other people’s behavior and character.

This judgment becomes even starker in another culture when the people aren’t playing by the same rules. Their “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are not the same as that of the foreigner who is passing judgment.

In a sense, when managing in a foreign culture, you are entering a world of moral ambiguity.

How do you navigate it?

Morality in Question

You aren’t likely to encourage debates of morality in a professional setting while working abroad. But that doesn’t mean your conscience won’t awaken when faced with another culture’s values.

We’ve discussed some of the differences across cultures in our self-assessment over the past couple weeks.

These profound conflicts of conscience might affect you outside of the workplace or inside it.

For instance, you might face the following questions:

  • Does the culture in which you are working consider gifts bribes?
  • Are your competitors circumventing the tax laws in this country? And does that mean you should follow suit, so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage?
  • Are women treated as inferior to men in the company?
  • What is the dress code like? Are public-facing jobs expected to dress professionally…and what does that even mean in this culture?
  • What if your company is manufacturing a product that directly conflicts with your cultural values (drugs used for executions, for instance)?

Here’s the thing: as a foreign manager in another culture, you aren’t going to click your fingers and change the societal values and norms by acting against the grain.

Nor should you completely abandon your convictions, because your values and norms are a substantial part of you.

All you can do is cope, which comes in the form of accepting, adapting to, and adopting the culture wherever you can.

We’ll expand on the four principles of cultural acceptance next week.

The Three A’s: Developing Personality Traits to Manage Successfully Across Cultures

Last week, we discussed that managers who lead successfully across cultures often demonstrate the following qualities: empathy, flexibility, emotional stability, open-mindedness, and social initiative.

Does this describe your personality?

If your answer is ‘yes’, then great! You’ll probably make an exceptional leader, no matter what cultural environment you find yourself managing in.

But if you find you’re lacking in some (or all) of these personality traits, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon them and succeed as a leader across cultures.

To do so, consider the Three A’s.

The Three A’s

In this blog, we often discuss accepting, adapting, and adopting culture – the three A’s.

Whether or not you naturally possess personality traits that assist cross-cultural integration, abiding by these three A’s will improve your efforts. In doing so, you will avoid Monkey Moments. You’ll also more successfully manage in a foreign culture and generally improve your cross-cultural skills.

Accepting, adapting, and adopting enable you to methodically face cultural conflicts head-on, rather than just winging it and hoping for the best.

Ask Yourself…

The following statements are binary: you may lean more strongly to one side or the other. The stronger you lean toward either side, the harder it will be for you to integrate into a foreign culture.

If you find both extremes to be acceptable, then you are demonstrating cultural competence.

Finding another’s values/norms acceptable doesn’t mean you must find them “right”; it just means you are willing to override your own cultural ethnocentricity, boundaries, education, and convictions, in order to properly accept, adapt, and maybe even adopt another’s.

As with last week’s self-assessment, note to what degree you agree with the following statements:

  • Everyone is responsible for their own actions.” / “Fate determines the outcome of events.”
  • “Asking direct questions is the best method to attain information.” / “It is rude/intrusive to ask direct questions.”
  • “Being vague in your responses is dishonest.” / “Avoiding answering directly/honestly prevents hurt and embarrassment.”
  • “Punctuality and efficiency are virtues demonstrated by intelligent people.” / “Spending time with the people you love is more important than punctuality.”
  • “Being on a first-name basis shows friendliness and familiarity.” / “Addressing people by their first name is disrespectful.”
  • “It is important to maintain eye contact with people who are speaking.” / “Direct eye contact with those of higher status is impolite.”

After reading through these binary statements, do you find either side completely unacceptable? Or is the opposite extreme something you’d not only be willing to accept but to adapt to?

If you’re leaning toward the latter, tune in next week as we discuss more in depth how to accept and adapt to another culture.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Management: Unite

Imagine someone from another country was brought in to manage your office.

This manager, instead of adapting to your culture, tries to impose his own.

He enforces rules in the office that make no sense to you; rules which go against your values and norms.

How would you respond to this management style? Would you conform or rebel against it?

Last week, we talked about how social control is exercised through relationships in relationship-based cultures and how rule-based cultures believe in individual autonomy.

This week, we’ll discuss how a little understanding about these cultural intricacies goes a long way in business management.

Rules of Engagement

Successful cross-cultural managers know the do’s and don’ts of cross-cultural environments. Below are the basics.

Do:

Don’t:

  • Divide
  • Try to alter cultural values/norms
  • Be inconsiderate about cultural differences
  • Confront colleagues about these differences
  • Press upon touchy subjects

As with the scenario mentioned in the intro, when you are the monkey, you’re entering a culture as an outsider. Your focus shouldn’t be on magnifying your differences, but rather, trying to understand them. 

Uniting, not dividing.

Just as in the intro scenario, place yourself in the shoes of the worker being managed.

When confronted with a culturally insensitive manager, you wouldn’t appreciate some outsider coming in to change things that have been done a certain way for many years.

Maybe even hundreds or thousands of years.

Step 1 of Uniting: Win Over the Leaders

In a relationship-based society, you manage groups, not individuals.

But that does not mean there aren’t important individuals amongst these groups.

To win over the group, you must win over the leader.

So, the first step is to identify the leader(s).

Next, you must build up your relationships with that leader.

By zeroing in on the important person(s), establishing a relationship with him/her, and cultivating that relationship, you’re essentially doing the same with the entire group in a relationship-based culture. The person(s) at the top of the hierarchy is the most respected and influential.

It’s pretty simple: win over the leaders, and you win the followers.

You can do this by:

  1. Winning their trust
  2. Winning their respect
  3. Motivating them
  4. Inspiring them

We’ll talk more about dealing cross-culturally in relationship-based cultures next week.

The Employer-Employee Relationship Across Cultures: Concept of Self, In-groups & the Workplace

How do you view your relationship with your employer?

Do you see the employer-employee relationship as something of a family link?

Or is the relationship strictly professional and contractual?

The way you view this relationship is conditioned by your society’s concept of the in-group. As with many things, this concept is formed according to where your culture lies upon Hofstede’s cultural dimension spectrum of collectivist vs. individualist.

We are Family

Collectivist cultures view the employer-employee relationship as a moral one, a familial one.

Whether or not the company is the in-group, the company is expected to behave according to the in-group’s rules and values.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, the in-group usurps all.

Strictly Professional

On the other hand, individualist cultures see the professional relationship as a contractual one.

The structure and hierarchy of a company/organization are not expected to follow the rules and values of any in-group the individual employees are a party too. Rather, the employees submit to the structure of their company and their company culture.

Why?

It’s pretty simple: because the company is built for the owners/employers and customers, and it’s in the employees’ personal interest to align themselves with this structure. Otherwise, they’re out of work and their self-realization of upward mobility ceases.

Abstract Relationship vs. Social Fabric

Individualist cultures view employee/employer relationships abstractly.

The relationship is built on a contract. Salary in exchange for work…and, hopefully, some employee satisfaction.

Collectivist cultures view companies/organizations as part of the community’s social fabric.

Members are the vehicles of the company’s purpose and meaning.

The companies, themselves, are often run by a family/clan, which can often lead to family hiring and nepotism. As we mentioned last week, this is acceptable – and even expected – in collectivist cultures.

Benefits to senior managers and individual shareholders are not the end-all, be-all of the organization’s development and success in a collectivist society. Instead, the organization serves the society/clan.

Motivational Theories

This is why Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” Herzberg’s two-factor theory, and other models for human motivation, created by Western researchers, don’t withstand cross-cultural tests.

They do not account for the fact that human needs and human motivation (particularly, in the workplace) differ greatly across cultures, which means the incentives to motivate teams will too.

Concept of Self

These differences are related to the concept of self.

The individualist vs. collectivist perspective of self is, understandably, a topic well researched.

Markus and Kitayama (1991) wrote:

“People in different cultures have strikingly different construals of the self, of others, and of the interdependence of the two. These construals can determine the very nature of individual experience, including cognition, emotion and motivation.”

concept of self

This chart shows an overview of various nations’ concept of self.

The US falls on the individualist end of the scale, while Asian countries fall on the collectivist end. European countries lean toward individualism, while others – like India, Spain, and Russia – are more central, balancing individualist values and ideals with collectivist ones. The Middle East, African countries, Mexico, and Japan are more collectivist-leaning.

While this chart isn’t too surprising, the way self-concept manifests in cultures in the areas of cognition, emotion, and motivation varies.

We’ll talk more of self-concept next week.

No Absolutes

The bottom line is there are absolutely no absolutes when managing and motivating across cultures. Motivational tactics that work in an individualist culture may not work in a collectivist one.

As a Western manager, don’t become the monkey in your workplace. Know that there are no absolutes. Know that, just as individualism is not the only driver of economic success, individualist motivators are not the only possible drivers for your employees.

You must adapt. In collectivist cultures, manage groups instead of individuals.

Cross-Cultural Management: Understanding Motivating Factors for Different In-groups

As we discussed in a previous post, individualist motivational management is obviously very much centered around the individual.

Praise for outstanding work, recognition, both material and immaterial. “Employee of the Month” springs to mind.

For individualist cultures, being recognized for individual achievement means you are succeeding in your career – and at life.

But these same tactics do not always work in other cultures.

So, what does work?

Translating Cultural Dimensions into Workplace Management

In order to discover what works in managerially motivating across cultures, you must identify the in-group.

Last week, we talked about how economic success does not depend wholly on whether a culture is individualistic or collectivistic.

Rather, the in-group is what matters.

Whether company or country, in-groups are the primary drivers of workplace motivation.

Loyalty to groups is key to economic growth, and identifying the culture’s in-group can help you adapt your management style to the culture’s values.

In many collectivist cultures, the in-group is the family or the clan. The fact that it isn’t the company or oneself creates motivational differences from individualist cultures.

Learn Some Cultural Motivations

Diplomas – Diplomas are a way to climb the status ladder in collectivist cultures. Rather than seeing diplomas as paving the way toward the career ladder of better opportunities, diplomas are a door opening to a higher status group.

Because of this cultural perspective, diplomas are not sought to increase self-confidence in one’s abilities, but rather primarily to gain status.

Mobility – There are various types of mobility – occupational, geographical, hierarchical, etc. – and they are viewed differently across cultures.

In collectivist cultures, where the in-group is incredibly important, mobility across all types is lower, because it results in a change in one’s in-group.

Why?

If you have geographical mobility, you might leave your family. If you have hierarchical mobility, your in-group must approve of any upward change in position within your company, or this new position must be consistent with the role they’ve bestowed upon you.

An example: becoming the company boss of a clan elder is likely out of the question. The in-group’s hierarchy (which, in this case, is the clan) will always supersede that of a company’s organizational formalities.

Nepotism – Hiring or promoting family members/friends is seen as morally wrong in Western cultures, particularly if that family member has no qualifications for the role.

This is because individualist cultures view employees as “economic persons” who are motivated to pursue the employer’s interests if it aligns with their own self-interest.

Not so much in collectivist cultures.

One’s self-interest – and/or that of one’s employer – is always usurped by that of the in-group.

Therefore, nepotism in a collectivist culture would not only be acceptable, it would be expected.

One example of this in a collectivist culture: Burkina Faso’s former President Blaise Compoare not only hired family members to fill positions in government, but he also built a zoo and an airport in his village and supplied it with electricity (the only village with light for years, at the time).

While this action may have caused an uproar in a Western country, the culture saw Compoare’s actions as morally just. He was caring for his in-group, his people, which is seen as a positive thing in Burkina Faso.

Next week, we’ll talk more about the employer-employee relationship across cultures.