Q & A

How Do We Work Across Cultures?

Globalization means that people from different countries are working together more and more. In her research, INSEAD’s Erin Meyer examines the cultural differences that can trip up global business relationships—and proposes methods for avoiding problems.


Q: Your research focuses on cross-cultural leadership and management. What are some of the issues that managers face when working with team members or business partners from other cultures?

I’ve built on the work of others in my field to develop a framework to help managers understand how their behavior is perceived by people in other parts of the world. I also provide a method for decoding how those cultural differences may be impacting their success. I use an eight-dimension process for this analysis, which looks at different types of behaviors. For example: How do you build trust differently in different parts of the world? How do you give negative feedback most appropriately in different world regions? How are decisions made in various countries?

The method places cultures along these eight dimensions. What's critical is understanding the relative difference between two countries. For example, I worked a while ago with a global team where I had, at the beginning, just British and French people working together. The British people would say “Oh, well, the French are really disorganized and chaotic, and they're always late. They're always changing the topic in the middle of the meeting so it's really hard to follow them.” That was the British perception of the French.

A little bit later, a group from India joined the same team. When I asked the Indians what it was like to work with the French, they said, “Well, you know, Erin, the French are so rigid and inadaptable, and so focused on the structure and punctuality of things, that they're not able to adapt as things change around them.” You can see on my time-orientation dimension, that France falls somewhere between the U.K. and India, which then leads to those opposite perceptions. What's important on the dimensions is understanding how two cultures perceive one another even if those two cultures are not your own.

Q: When you're trying to understand these cultural differences, how do you avoid falling back on stereotypes?

What I tried to do with this book is move away from simplistic stereotypes, to help people tease out the much more complex and more intricate realities. I live in France; I've lived there 15 years. The French stereotype Americans as being very direct, and that's because Americans are much more explicit, in general, than the French are. But that being said, the French are much more direct with negative feedback than Americans are.

In my framework, you can see that the U.S. and France switch places on the dimension that looks at how implicit or explicit a culture is, versus how direct a culture is with negative feedback. In the U.S., we give a lot more positive feedback—explicit positive feedback—than they do in France. In France, most often, positive feedback is given implicitly, meaning it's not spoken. And in France, if you have something negative to say, you're likely to say it a lot more directly than we would in the U.S.

I worked with a French woman a while ago who was being managed by an American boss, and her boss called her into his office to tell her the things that he needed her to change about her behavior. But he started by saying things like, “You know, I really appreciate that you've been doing this well, and I notice that you've been working very hard in this area,” leading with three positives for every negative in the way many are trained to do in the U.S.

By the time he got to the negatives, the French woman was hardly listening anymore. She left that meeting thinking, “Wow, that's the most positive feedback I've ever received from a boss,” whereas he thought that he was chewing her out. So those things can be very complex and often are counter to stereotype.

Q: What are some tactics that managers should keep in mind to avoid these issues?

The most important lesson for anybody who needs to work in an international environment is to consider thoughtfully when culture may be impacting your success and then learn to adapt accordingly.

In one MBA student group I supervised at INSEAD there were Americans, French, and Germans, plus two students from Malaysia, working together. On this team, the Europeans and Americans were talking all of the time, and the Malaysians were really quiet. I spoke with one of the Americans during a break, and he said, “You know, these two Malaysians on our team, they're so shy and they don't seem to have anything to contribute.”

But later on, when I spoke with the Malaysians, they said, “You know, it's so difficult to participate on this team because our American and European counterparts are constantly jumping in on top of one another and speaking without preparing. There is no space for us to talk.” That happens because in the U.S., as well as in most European countries, we are trained to jump in right on top of each other while we're talking, while in Malaysia people are taught that you should listen to the full sentence that the person is saying, wait for them to stop, give a couple of seconds silence, and then you can respond.

For MBA students, it's really important to recognize that when you have a negative reaction to someone from another country, you need to stop and ask yourself, “Is it possible that something cultural is going on that is impacting my reaction?” And then once you've understood what that is, you can take some simple steps to improve your effectiveness.

Q: Are these differences becoming lesser or greater because of globalization? Is there an emergence of universal business etiquette?

It is a common idea that because media is globalizing and because we are able to connect so easily, that we are somehow developing a global culture, and that in 10 or 15 years, there will be no cultural differences. But I find exactly the opposite—that the more that we work across cultures, the more culture impacts us. The more we work across cultures over virtual media, like Skype or email or telephone, the less we are aware that culture is affecting us. It’s impacting us more, but we're aware of it less.

Here’s a simple example. In the U.S., at the end of a telephone call, it's best practice that you should recap what has been decided, perhaps verbally and then perhaps afterwards by email. You put together a little recap, about who is going to do what, and then you send that out to the person that you've just spoken with.

I worked with a Saudi Arabian client a while ago who said, “You know, Erin, in my culture, if we have a discussion on the telephone and we make some decisions verbally, that would be enough for me, especially if we have a good relationship. And then if you get off of the phone and you put into writing everything that we've just decided, and you send that to me, that would be a sign to me that you don't trust me.”

When we're working over virtual media, culture impacts us continuously, and we don’t even know it. The more we globalize, the more we work across virtual media, the more absolutely critical it is that we become aware of how to adapt our style to get the results we're hoping for.

Q: How might this be different for someone who is early in their career versus someone who has climbed the ladder?

Often the people who have been the most successful in their own culture—especially let’s say if they’re over 40, and they’ve had some 20 years of really thorough conditioning on how to succeed—struggle when put in charge in another country, because success requires putting in question much of what the they have learned over their career.

The people companies hire for global positions need to be extremely flexible. They need to understand, for example, that in Denmark it motivates people when the boss acts like a facilitator among equals, but in Russia the staff responds better when the boss is clearly in charge. Fifteen years ago, when companies weren’t so globalized, managers mostly just had to be good at motivating people from their own country. But now multinational companies need to think hard about how to prepare their managers to adapt their leadership style to be effective in all the different countries they might be working in, and that’s very complex.

In today’s global economy you might be an American giving a presentation in Japan, an Italian negotiating a deal in Nigeria, or a German managing a team of Brazilians. You can do your business over email, on the telephone, or you can get on a plane. That’s the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to conduct yourself with another culture, and the more the world globalizes the more important this skill becomes.

The Global Network for Advanced Management connects faculty and students at 27 top business schools around the world. The Global Network Insights series features faculty experts from throughout the network.

Interview conducted and edited by Matthew O’Rourke.

Affiliate Professor of Organizational Behavior, INSEAD