“Are Europeans lazy? Or Americans crazy?” This is the rather provocative title of a conference about the perception of work on both continents organised in 2006 by Stephen Nickell, a British economist working for the Bank of England. Behind this question lies the ever lasting conflict between two opposite visions of life: do we work to live or do we live to work? The answer to that question is likely to depend on your cultural background, the country you live in and how this impacts working effectively across cultures.
The way Europeans and Americans work can, of course, be explained by economical, historical or sociological traits like unemployment rates, the number of hours worked each week, worker productivity levels and the social system. But these differences also come from fundamental cultural differences that exist between the two continents. The importance of family, free time, personal development or even religion within a specific culture can influence the working practices of a country. These differences can get in the way of working effectively across cultures and they can harm the performance of multicultural teams.
Let’s look a few examples of differences in working practices and attitudes you may find when working across cultures. Many employees in Norway and Sweden have adjusted their working hours in order to spend more time with their families as this is what is important to them in life. In France, people work 35 hours per week and they take more annual leave which gives them more spare time to spend with family and friends. In Spain there are many religious celebrations that are taken as official public holidays which allow people to share the occasion with family and close relations.
Some people in the US who tend to believe that ‘time is money’ may look at these countries and feel that ‘Europeans are lazy’ due to their shorter working hours and longer holidays. This perception can be linked to the highly competitive and business oriented approach to work common in the US. On the other hand the incredibly strong work ethics and the common practice of working long hours and taking a few days off work each year can result in some Europeans thinking ‘Americans are crazy’ for not spending more time with family and friends.
Working effectively across cultures requires an understanding that every culture has its own unique approach to work ethics and time management which can have a significant impact on how working preferences are perceived and managed. An achievement and result oriented country like the US, for example, will strongly encourage workers to do their best individually every day to fulfil their goals in the most efficient and profitable way no matter how long it takes. A relationship oriented culture like Spain will encourage people to work together toward success but they be less likely to expect this to be achieved through overtime or shorter holidays.
Despite many references to Europe as a whole, there isn’t any cultural uniformity between European countries. France is completely different from the Netherlands and you cannot compare the UK to Italy as each country has its own set of core cultural values. Each European country differs greatly from the US in its own way, and the existence of false assumptions based on preconceived ideas like ‘all Europeans are lazy’ can create obstacles for an American manager or employee coming to Europe for an international assignment.
These obstacles can cause frustration and misunderstandings, preventing them from working effectively across cultures. Following a cross cultural awareness training programme such as Doing Business in the US or Working Effectively across Cultures can help multicultural teams or organisations to cope with the challenges and create their own strategies. By avoiding quick judgments and false assumptions about how lazy or crazy your counterparts are around the world, you will be able to create good relationships, harness everyone’s strengths and work more effectively across cultures.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011