Success in the Global Workplace Takes Understanding the Culture

An engineering manager I’ll call Geoff was sent to his company’s Mexican subsidiary to direct a team of engineers. His job was to get a production line up and running and return to the States. After working with the Mexican engineers for a few weeks, Geoff called them in for a meeting. “My goal,” he told them, “is to replace myself as manager in six months. I’ll choose one of you — someone who shows strong initiative, good judgment and leadership capabilities.”

Geoff expected the promotion opportunity to motivate his Mexican employees to show personal initiative, propose creative solutions, and demonstrate their leadership skills. But their reaction disappointed him. The team introduced solutions together, with no indication of who had proposed them, and no clear leader emerged. Moreover, in one-on-one conversations with him, members took a responsive posture, rather than speaking up or showing personal initiative.

His frustration mounted as he considered the possibility that there was no one qualified for promotion on the team.

Recognize cultural differences

Geoff’s problem wasn’t a lack of talent among his employees. It was his failure to recognize that they did not share his culturally based perceptions of leadership and collaboration.

In my work as a consultant and trainer, I teach clients to avoid culture-based problems by identifying the cultural tendencies of their international contacts and developing culturally sensitive management strategies.

Geoff’s expectations were based on his independent cultural orientation, which prioritizes personal initiative and accountability. He missed the signs of group orientation on his Mexican team. Geoff might have noticed, for example, that they worked closely together with little division of responsibility, expecting to take credit or blame as a team. Or that they made decisions by consensus and avoided singling out individuals for praise or criticism.

Motivate through culture-based management

If Geoff had recognized his team’s group tendencies, he could have used culturally appropriate techniques to help his team produce a leader. His expectations were counter to the team’s priority of maintaining harmony and commitment to the team as a whole. Members who stepped forward and singled themselves out as Geoff expected would be perceived as a flagrant self-promoters and earn the contempt of their teammates.

Instead, Geoff should have tailored his approach to address group priorities. For example, he could have asked the team to choose a spokesperson for each of several projects. Observing the employees chosen and how each one handled the role would have narrowed the field of candidates and given him insight into individuals’ abilities.

Once he recognized his Mexican team’s group orientation, Geoff might decide he needed to direct it towards a more independent-style — to mesh better with US headquarters, for example. Designing a goal-based culture and using culture-based management techniques could help him bring his employees willingly into alignment with corporate expectations. He could start by discussing team and project goals and use these to develop and justify project-specific policies, procedures, and reward systems.

Develop strategies that mesh with the culture

Imposing a new culture that was in direct conflict with his employees’ cultural tendencies could create stress and resistance from his team, but culture-based strategies could help reassure them and achieve cultural equilibrium.

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Geoff might involve his team in designing the new culture by asking them to propose procedures that were comfortable for them, redirecting as needed to keep them in alignment with project and corporate goals. And he might suggest policies that acknowledged group preferences — an award for the highest-performing team, for example — while encouraging Independent initiative, perhaps through an employee of the month program.

Create cultural synergies

Prioritizing Geoff’s own cultural approach and insisting on an independent-oriented work style could have demotivated his group-oriented employees and decreased their productivity. Acknowledging group priorities and values while encouraging the individual initiative valued by his company’s independent culture would help him create “cultural synergies” instead.

Leveraging his team’s close-knit working relationship and strong dynamic while coaching his employees to participate more proactively would help Geoff create a project culture that performed beyond the sum of its parts.