If you have people in your teams coming from different cultures and they behave in a manner you find it hard to understand, read on.
I have worked with people from many other countries, and it always intrigues me how differently we see things. Not just drawing from personal experience, I’ll take research help from Hofstede, the Global Project.
In the pictures are a few countries marked on where they are on a sliding scale. These are averages which means every country have a sliding scale all by themselves. Interviewing people from different cultures shows that they find it easy to put themselves to the right or left on the scale compared to other countries. I’ll show you two scales that explains a lot when you think about it, low vs high context opposites and egalitarian vs hierarchical leadership.
In low context countries, excellent communication means it’s precise, straightforward and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the discussion. People from low context countries don’t “read the air” which means everything that goes on in between the actual sentences. They miss out on what people from high-context countries are saying. For them, it just seems vague and non-committed and is considered not trustworthy.
In high context countries, excellent communication means it’s sophisticated, nuanced and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines, which means that words are often implied but not plainly expressed. Often low context countries are seen as childish in their communication. Why repeat everything? We got it the first time.
Let’s look at the two countries on the opposite side of the spectrum, the US and Japan. High context cultures tend to have a long-shared history. Usually, they are relationship-oriented societies where networks of connections are passed on from generation to generation, generating more shared context among community members. Japan’s island society with a homogeneous population and thousands of year’s history, people became skilled at picking up sub contextual messages.
By contrast, the US, with its shorter history of only a few hundred years, has been shaped by enormous inflows of immigrants from various countries with different backgrounds. Americans learned quickly to be as clear and explicit as possible to avoid misunderstanding.
Regarding leading with egalitarian and hierarchical leadership, we also see history unfolding. The countries that were under the Roman Empire influence; Italy, Spain and France have a more hierarchical structure. Roman society had different colours on the togas to show their rank, and there were many levels of power. The Catholic church stems from this and also have many hierarchical layers, the Pope at the helm. The northern European countries influenced by the Vikings have the most equal and consensus-oriented cultures, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. They had their local chiefs and met at the Ting to decide significant issues together.
Looking at the hierarchical structures, you’ll also see most of the Asian cultures. There is a tradition with an emperor who showed kindness to the loyal subjects; the father protected the family who showed respect and obedience. The older brother took care of the younger siblings, sometimes historically called son number 1, son number 2 etc. The hierarchical status is still dominant, and you usually don’t question someone higher up than you.
In the egalitarian culture, the distance between a manager and an employee is ideally low. You see the manager as a facilitator among equals and communication often skips hierarchical levels. The organisation’s structure is flat. You can openly disagree with your manager, even in front of others. You can e-mail or call people several levels below or above you. With clients or partners, you will be seated and spoken to in no particular order.
In the hierarchical culture, the distance between manager and employee is high, status is essential. The manager is best if he or she leads from the front and seems stable. Organisations are layered with multiple levels and fixed. Communication follows a set of hierarchical lines. Being Swedish myself, I have had my fair share of problems not understanding hierarchies, being too outspoken and considered bad-mannered. I actually got fired from my first job in London. As I grew up feeling equal to my parents’ friends and on a first name basis with teachers since kindergarten. Any Swedish person will probably speak her mind to a manager several layers up from her and think nothing of it.
There are many more of these opposites, and if you lead people from different countries and cultures, you have to be extra clear on what you expect and get to know your people. They might think very differently from you. Don’t assume you know, ask them what they need and want. If you are managing people that are very different from your culture inform yourself. As we are all hanging out on Zoom and Teams, remember that people from Eastern Asia have more and longer pauses, they want to be invited into the conversation. Sometimes a delay can be 6-7 seconds long, and that is normal. You might think they are vague; remember you are supposed to “read the air”. Communication is as always crucial.
About the Author
Birgitta Sjöstrand is a professional public speaker, leadership trainer, facilitator and coach. She works internationally with both large and small organisations. Her area of expertise is leadership, communication, motivation and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Birgitta is the founder and chief executive of Inre styrka, Sverige AB, formed in 2003. (Inre styrka means PowerWithin). Birgitta was working in the financial market in Stockholm and London for ten years. After having three children, she studied again – leadership, behaviour psychology, communication – and has a number of different certifications. Birgitta is the author of Outstanding in the Middle, a practical and accessible guide to excelling in all aspects of middle management.
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