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.

Assuming Sameness: How Cross-Cultural Exchanges Can Go VERY Wrong

Tom walks into his potential new Japanese office.

He’s never opened a book on cross-cultural business (I am the Monkey! would be a great start), hasn’t learned anything about the culture, and barely put his shoes on the right feet this morning.

He enters the conference room, dressed casually, and goes to shake hands all around. The Japanese colleagues bow, and Tom bungles through, half-bowing, half-hand shaking.

When this exchange is over, they each present their business cards to Tom in turn. He accepts them with one hand and shoves them into his pocket. He forgot his back at the hotel.

Clearly, Tom was ill-prepared. And he didn’t get the job.

What did he do wrong?

Well, for one thing, he assumed sameness. And by that, I mean, he assumed Japanese culture and business etiquette was the same as his own.

What is “Normal”?

With the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about sameness in a way: all the general themes cultures have in common, from language to politics, from transportation to the arts.

Now, we’re going to talk about the dangers in assuming cultures are all the same.

First off, it’s completely natural to assume that other cultures fall in line with our own.

For one thing, from the time we are children, we’re taught a limited scope of what’s expected and accepted by the society into which we’ve been born; we’re taught our own culture’s values and norms.

We see this scope as “normal.” And when another culture falls outside our limited scope, their actions or ideologies are viewed as abnormal.

So with this implicit assumption that the rest of the world is normal like us, anything different feels wrong.

But, the more we are exposed to, the more our scope of “normal” evolves and grows. If we’re open to it, we learn that “normal” is not a universally fixed concept.

Abandon Assumptions

Success in a multicultural environment begins with abandoning assumptions. You can do this in five steps:

  1. Assume you know nothing
  2. Shed foundational views of right vs. wrong and normal vs. abnormal
  3. Know that you’ve been exposed to a microscopic worldview
  4. Admire the cultural diversity that paints the complex mural of humanity
  5. Recall the Baobab Theory of Culture and connect the dots from the roots to the branches, in order to understand cultural differences

Done Differently

Knowing all this, after abandoning assumptions, what should Tom have done differently during his Japanese meeting?

  • Read a book on cross-cultural business
  • Read up on Japanese business etiquette
  • Dressed formally
  • Bowed, instead of shaken hands (or both, if the Japanese counterparts offered a handshake)
  • Been prepared with business cards, as this exchange is routine in Japan
  • Accepted others’ business cards with both hands
  • Read and memorized the name and important information on each card
  • Placed the card carefully into a business card holder, instead of directly into the pocket

Respect is essential etiquette in Japanese business culture. Anything less is insulting.

By assuming sameness, Tom insulted his potential colleagues and cut short his success across cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk more about acquired and genetic perception and how they form our culture and our understanding of others.