How to … communicate across the cultural divide

by 10 Jul 2007

Why is it important?

Until quite recently, company leaders who worked closely with foreign colleagues either travelled regularly or were transferred overseas. But the world of work has changed dramatically. Now, many managers regularly interact with foreign clients, vendors or fellow employees without ever leaving their offices.

For instance, an HR manager in London may, on the same day, talk with a colleague in Asia and a customer in the US. Or, a software developer in Dublincan pass on an around-the-clock software project each afternoon to a colleague in California, and get it back the next morning from a colleague in Bangalore.

This increased interaction with colleagues in other countries can result in a dramatic contrast in styles, cultures and expectations. That, in turn, makes it more important to ensure your organisation has access to the interpersonal and management skills needed to be effective in the countries in which it operates.

Leadership outcomes

Research from global HR consulting firm Personnel Decisions International (PDI) suggests that there are significant differences in core personality traits between business leaders from different countries.

PDI examined responses on its global questionnaire from nearly 7,500 managers and executives in more than 500 organisations across 12 countries. The survey looked at 39 specific traits that make up what industrial psychologists call ‘The Big Five’– emotional balance, extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to new experiences.

Chief among the research findings is the fact that agreeableness and emotional balance account for the biggest differences between managers and executives working across different countries.

Business leaders in the UK had among the lowest scores on agreeableness – the tendency to seek group harmony – and received average scores in emotional balance. Executives in the UK, as well as other EU countries including Germany and the Netherlands, scored high on extroversion, meaning they like to work in groups.

In contrast, managers and executives in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Japan are more concerned about maintaining group harmony, and seem more in touch with their emotions and feelings, but they are less inclined to speak openly.

Cultural awareness

Given increased international interaction and stark differences in styles and cultures, it’s important for you to be able to match your personal and communication styles with those of colleagues in other countries.

“Without realising it you may not put be putting as much emphasis on group harmony, so you are at risk of coming across as more abrupt or non-caring to managers in countries such as Japan or Saudi Arabia,”says Simon Callow, vice-president and managing director of PDI UK.

Take a brainstorming session, for example. It’s a common exercise in the UK, where open group discussion is accepted. However in China, executives scored low on extroversion, preferring to work on problems alone rather than with others. If you propose a brainstorming session with Chinese colleagues, you could be met with great resistance, meaning your effort is likely to be a waste of time.

Adapt your behaviour

Recognise the differences in cultural behaviours and personality traits so you can learn how to adapt your behaviour, such as your communication style. Adopt the proper greeting and the correct way to address peers in other cultures.

However, Callow admits that there are limits to human adaptability. For instance, while you can learn not to cross your legs in Saudi Arabia, it may be more difficult for you to know how to become more ‘agreeable’ in order to work well with Saudi co-workers. Teaching behaviour is one thing; changing a personality is another.

He explains that if all else fails, and you still find that you are having clashes because of cultural differences, ask one of your peers who more closely matches the ‘personality’ of that country’s cultural working behaviour to communicate on your behalf.

Second opinion on handling cross-cultural behaviours

By Simon Callow, vice-president and managing director, PDI UK

Do different countries prefer different types of leadership behaviours?

Yes. In researching what bosses valued in rating the performance level of their direct reports, PDI found three different behaviour group preferences: fundamental leadership, results-oriented leadership and business know-how leadership.

What are the different leadership styles?

The fundamental leader exhibits sound judgement, is adaptable, is a good coach and can walk the talk.

The results-oriented leader is one who champions change, establishes plans, and leads courageously, but is less good at being adaptable or building relationships.

The business know-how leader is one who knows the business well and also has excellent technical or functional skills.

How does preference for leadership styles differ from country to country?

India and Singapore prefer the business know-how style, while Mexico and Germany prefer results-oriented leaders.

Other countries, such as the US, Canada and the UK, did not have strong preferences for one style over the others.

So, before you communicate with your international colleagues, consider the leadership styles valued in various countries, so that it is easier for you to adopt the correct cultural behaviour.

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine.