Home > Cross-cultural, Team work > Culture or distance? That’s the question

Culture or distance? That’s the question

My earlier blog (right below this) was about myths in cultural cooperation. I highlight there several times that culture is not the cause for problems. However, culture is very often a cause for making problems worse.

Why culture, or cultural differences, are making the problems worse if culture is not the reason for problems? The answer is in the fact that culture often seems to be the problem. When cooperation fails, we only notice it when it is too late. When trying to fix the issues we are already walking on a thin cultural ice. When this fails the entire issue is labelled a cultural problem.

I do not have any statistics but my gut-feeling is that this is a variation of “80/20”

80 % of problems at workplace are caused by people working for common goal in different locations or different languages. Only 20 % of issues are really caused by cultural differences.

However, 80 % of problems are labelled to be “cultural problems” and remaining 20 % is admitted to be caused by geographical separation.

Typical issues caused by geographical separation are: lack of common time for meetings, narrow-band communication (email, phone), people forced to speak non-native language, tacit (spoken) information is lost, need for waiting for another party to respond.

Typical cultural issues are interpretation of words, gestures and symbols, for example: meaning of “yes”/”no”, being on time in meetings, how to deal with silence in conversation, how close a deal or reach agreement.

What happens typically in work place is the following: Teams have pressure to complete project on time. While doing this, their need for communication increases. The communication bandwidth does not increase with same rate, so information gets lost. Use of “lingua franca” (non-native English) narrows the channel even further. Working on different time zones make it difficult to find meeting times, so much of decisions are made without the other team. Quick hacks are put in project deliverables.

Bang! Things explode. All because “80”, i.e. geographical separation.

Then starts the fixing. Already frustrated, teams do not trust each others. When asked about the cause for problems, people are already trying to “find the guilty”. Instead of analysing the situation, they start to seek for others to blame. Then the cultural issues surface. Teams often comment on how the others “cannot be trusted” or “are always late” or “show no initiative” or “don’t tell the truth”.

It is important to understand the cultural issues; behaviour, language and reactions of “the other” culture. Even more important it is to understand own behaviour, especially in crisis situations. Working on the cultural issues alone is not sufficient.

The most important is to analyse the system: why did we have the problems in first place? How much of the problem is related to geographical separation and how those could be eliminated?

It is important to keep in mind that people are pretty much the same in all corners of the world: they have feelings, dreams, needs and own personality. The best advise I can give is: treat others as you wish yourself to be treated. If this does not help, then look into cultural patterns and see if a culture-specific approach would help better.

Categories: Cross-cultural, Team work
  1. Jukka Aakula
    October 20, 2010 at 16:30

    I work with customers and partners and colleges mainly in Germany, UK, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. I think big part of the problems are as you say due to physical separation.

    But I am always nervous when I speak to Swedes. I try to be polite but they misunderstand me. I probably also misunderstand them. The gap is big in how we and they communicate.

    • October 27, 2010 at 11:31

      Thanks Jukka for your comment.
      I also have a feeling that working with Swedes is more difficult than it should be. One reason could be Illusion of Similarity: We have lot of similar behaviour, we address people with first name, drink the same coffee and dress alike, and we like the same sports. We also share a long common history. This give a feeling that we are similar to each others. However, there are very significant differences related to communication and conflicts. Swedes tend to be more outspoken and try to reach consensus, Finns are more closed and express disagreement in a very different way.
      So, we are similar on the surface and that makes us blind (and unprotected) for differences.
      Another issue could be our long common history: Sweden being the superpower in 18th and 19th century and Finland being subject to Swedish crown. This left many Finns with deep wounds: we feel inferior and want to “beat the Swedes”. Not only in sports, but also in business. Some people could may feel like elder brother – younger brother in discussions with Swedes.

      • Jukka Aakula
        October 27, 2010 at 12:11

        I vote for your theory Illusion of Similarity.

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