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.