Lost in Intercultural Space

Robert Paul Schwippert

When Jim – a US manager working for a global IT company - approached me he was to the point, very efficient and straightforward, just as his question was: ‘I got this new team, consisting of UK based staff and Southern Europeans. We are responsible for running the IT Operations for Europe but I don’t think the right dynamics are there.’ . ‘Ok, give me an example what is happening?’ I asked, becoming curious. He continued: ‘I see lack of ownership and drive – and misunderstandings between people in terms of communications. I think by better understanding each other we could improve service to our customers! Can you help me out..?’

I met the team a few weeks later in Warsaw. In the course of the session I observed a pattern in their team dynamics. The attendees from Southern Europe were sometimes confused by the indirect communication style of the British – and one could feel their frustration: just tell us what to do instead of using these complex sentences? The US manager seemed slightly disappointed with the low level of individual responsibility from his European team members – surely they could be more pro-active? The English were annoyed with the progress in Southern Europe and felt their colleagues did not fully support the implementation of global processes.

Translating this back to a cultural framework I could see three distinct cultural dimensions involved and re-enforcing each other:

  •  Individual versus Group orientation: does the individual take the decision and willingly accepts the responsibility (e.g. the US) or is it rather the team that takes a decision, after consultation of its members(e.g. Southern European cultures)
  • Transactional versus Relationship orientation: is it required to build a personal relationship prior to doing business (Southern European cultures) or is it appropriate to come to business quickly and focus on the work (Anglo Saxon cultures).
  • Direct versus Indirect communication: Do we use ‘direct’ communication meaning speaking our minds or are we more careful expressing our opinions with considerations towards the feelings of the other.

You can find these dimensions in cultural literature. However, it not just the individual orientations that vary, but rather the combination of orientations that are relevant.  Someone with a preference for direct communication, a transactional approach and an individual orientation may be (wrongly!) perceived as distant, insensitive and impersonal by cultures that express more for indirect communication, group orientation and relationship cultures.  And vice versa of course.

Showing a few slides with a graphical representation of the various perspectives in the team I felt it became clear for this team how culture has an impact on their collaboration. With these insights we spent time on defining pragmatic ‘solutions’ and devised simple yet important behavioral changes such as:

  1. For transactional oriented people working with relationship oriented people: Invest in building the relationship prior to addressing work issues and projects. Fly in the night before and have a dinner with your peer – it is not  ‘lost time’ but ‘investment’ when you see the world more holistically.
  2. Be careful of your use of language: English is not everyone’s first language and the metaphors and subtleties may not be fully understood. Ask for feedback and invite questions or check understanding.
  3. For individual orientated cultures working with more group oriented cultures: Do not single out individuals in meetings, leave some time for the groups to discuss amongst themselves – and because of this: don't confuse slow individual progress with lack of engagement.  

We closed the day by agreeing some behaviors that the team would like to see with each other and created a charter for moving forward. The team seemed happy and the session brought fresh and helpful perspective on their dynamics – the aim of the workshop.

And Jim? He mailed me his feedback afterwards: 'The session was great, the team was engaged throughout. I think the team was skeptical when I mentioned the need for the training.  Now, I am able to reference the training in real life situations'. 

Short and to the point in his direct communication style. I took this as a big compliment.