While businesses and analysts attempt to measure all key leading indicators in a business there is one that is escaping them – perhaps the most important one of all – the cultural factor. Culture has a huge impact on business but is nearly impossible to measure, at least with the same objectivity. But organisations would be foolish not to recognise its importance.
What is the cultural factor?
Culture is the unwritten rules of behaviour and communication that define a particular group. These unwritten rules govern what is right, acceptable, appropriate and normal within that group – similarly defining those who do not conform to those rules as different and abnormal.
Culture is the unwritten rules of behaviour and communication that define a particular group
Although culture is often described within the definition of national characteristics, organisations have clear cultures as well. Organisations that do not take the cultural factor into account within their organisations will almost certainly be organisations in conflict.
Cultural conflict occurs when an outsider joins an established group – whether this is:
- someone arriving from a foreign country
- a new starter
- a project team working on a new international project
The difference in values, attitudes and behaviours of the two cultures are incompatible – and because culture is usually an invisible element, the tension escalates to conflict quite quickly. Different priorities, decision-making processes, and attitudes to status and hierarchy are the sort of cultural factors that cause the biggest conflicts within organisations.
Cultural conflict occurs when an outsider joins an established group
The cultural factor affects every part of work, but looking at a few at a time allows us to identify ways to develop a more global mindset.
Status and hierarchy
In hierarchical cultures, such as France or China, or in a traditional company like a large bank, decision making is usually concentrated in one person. The leader may well consult advisors in private, but will take the decision themselves. When they call a team meeting, they will inform the team of the decision that they have already made, and there will be little discussion.
A Danish engineer working in China may feel that they are not valued as their opinion is often ignored
In more egalitarian societies, such as engineering companies, or Denmark or Australia, a leader will make a decision after thorough discussion and debate. A domain expert may actually be the person who decides which option is best rather than the most senior person.
During a meeting the entire team will discuss available options and each will have some input. Team members are comfortable disagreeing with the leader, who acts as facilitator and signs off on the group consensus.
In more egalitarian societies, such as engineering companies, or Denmark or Australia, a leader will make a decision after thorough discussion and debate
A French banker who is working regularly with a Danish organisation will feel disrespected by the constant questioning of their decisions. A Danish engineer working in China may feel that they are not valued as their opinion is often ignored.
Time and punctuality
Northern Europeans are famous the world over for their punctuality. Turning up on time is a sign that you value and respect your counterpart. The working day is broken up into manageable chunks for each task, and it is much less common to multitask. When in a meeting or a discussion interruptions are very rare.
A Greek may see a German as inflexible, and unable to adapt to the changing demands of modern business
Mediterranean cultures take a much more flexible approach to time. Time is not so much a straight line, but a series of overlapping circles that respond to each situation. This means that although a meeting is scheduled for 10.00, if something else comes up the meeting may start a bit late. Multitasking is the only way forward as a variety of tasks and projects must be balanced. Getting things done is a priority, but priorities can change.
Mediterranean cultures take a much more flexible approach to time
A Greek may see a German as inflexible, and unable to adapt to the changing demands of modern business; too focussed on time to enjoy the process. A Finn may see an Italian as chaotic, disorganised and disrespectful for not following the schedule.
Culture as a positive factor
Culture is nearly always portrayed as a negative – in terms of difference and conflict. And we mustn’t ignore that side of it. However, the cultural factor can also be a positive. By having a diverse approach to problem solving and project management, organisations are likely to be more innovative and creative.
Understanding different cultural perspectives allows sales people to understand their customers better, HR managers can address staffing issues more empathetically, and leaders can maximise the performance of teams more effectively.
Managing cultural differences successfully
Organisations that manage the cultural factor successfully will be those that learn to manage the cultural differences. Four easy steps towards that goal:
1. Be aware
Find out as much as you can about your counterparts’ culture and your own. Learn how to use cultural difference as an advantage.
2. Be open-minded
Difference challenges us to accept that what is normal for us is not normal for everyone. Our way is not always the right way or the best way. Keeping an open-mind allows for alternative routes to the same destination.
Our way is not always the right way or the best way
3. Be adaptable
Expect the unexpected, and learn how to flex your own working pattern to accommodate other cultural preferences.
4. Be able to define limits where they are needed
Occasionally you will come across an area where you must draw a line. Try and foresee these well in advance, and prepare your counterpart early on.
Organisations willing to learn from cultural differences will be better employers for a diverse work force. They will also be better business partners with other organisations, especially those that come from very different cultural backgrounds.