Many, perhaps most, global companies don’t address the influence of cultural differences on global teams. We see at least thirteen reasons for why. And although these reasons are human, they’re not human enough. More human is to overcome these reservations.
We are not aware of cultural differences. First, we are neither educated nor trained to explore our national cultural logics. See the curricula of universities, graduate studies, and executive education.
For reasons of political correctness, which has been a strong trend over the last twenty-five years. In the United States identity politics has become particularly strong in the last decade. There is seldom real discussion about how national cultures think.
It is actually a contradiction. On the one side we have the trend towards identity politics, drawing clear distinctions between ethnic groups. On the other side there is little discussion about how those groups think, therefore work, live, etc.
And very little discussion about how the differences between the groups influence their work and life together. There is seldom direct, open, thoughtful, respectful discussion about this. And there is seldom real discussion within global companies.
People are People
Many think and say that people are people. It is the most common fallback position. Folks then hope that good intentions will prevail, will enable collaboration to go smoothly. It is true, people are people. At a fundamental level we all need air, water, food, shelter, safety, healthcare, family, friends, love.
But from there on we are all human beings imbedded in a national culture. And cultures are different, how they think and work in key areas is different. Frankly, it can’t be any other way. Rejecting this is the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand. The effect of “people are people” is that we don’t discuss cultural differences.
We are so focused on the substance of our work that we don’t consider differences in approaches. We’re simply too busy to reflect, gain distance, to get abstract. We’re all under pressure, have to deliver results, have to move fast. We have become too transactional. We believe that we have too little time to step back and to analyze the situation.
Corporate vs. Country
There is false competition between the respective corporate cultures﹣between how we do things as a company. Corporate culture does exist. Apple is surely different than Goldman Sachs. And adidas is surely different than Volkswagen.
However, there is an intellectual misunderstanding. Country culture runs far deeper than corporate culture. Dow Chemical (American) has more in common with General Motors (American) than it does with BASF (German). As does Volkswagen (German) have more in common with BASF (German) than it does with General Motors (American.
Most companies ignore the influence of country culture. They place their hopes in standardized (harmonized) ways of doing things within the company. They believe that how they work across the company, let’s use the term processes, will make country cultural differences irrelevant. Wrong thinking.
Fear﹣the deepest, oldest and most powerful driver of human behavior. It can be frightening to reflect on who we are as individuals, as a people. It can be frightening to go deep, to explore how we think and act. It can be embarrassing to admit that we have seldom considered country cultural differences and their influence on our work, on cross-border collaboration.
Machine Age thinking
Complicating all of this is Machine Age thinking. We live in the age of the machine. Science, engineering, so-called scientific management,. Man created the machine. And those machines have worked wonders for mankind.
But we have a tendancy to see ourselves as parts of a machine, or worse, as machines ourselves. We organize ourselves and our work as if we were one big machine. See the importance within companies of organizational structures, processes, technologies. See the dominance of numbers, of ensuring that we can measure just about everything.
Our very thinking as become machine-like. If something is measurable, then it is relevant. If it is not measurable, then it is not relevant. But what about human thought processes and human action and interaction? They are difficult to measure. Are they irrelevant? Companies attempt to manage complex, cross-border human organizations as if they were machines. It doesn’t work.
Difficult to Articulate
Often we sense cultural differences, but we have difficulty articulating them. We are not trained to, not accustomed to, do not have the language, for articulating what we experience at a deeper level.
We have neither the awareness, nor the explanations, nor the terms, to engage with each other in discussion about the differences in how we as different country cultures think and work.
We become frustrated. And understandably so. Because trying to get clarity in our collaboration can be tiresome. Often our attempts don’t lead to clarity and understanding.
In fact, our initial attempts to articulate often lead to negative results. We feel embarrassed. For using simplistic explanations. In many cases the discussions lead to confrontation. Our lack of articulation makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. We realize how highly sensitive the subject matter is.
Working in global teams is complex. Basic communication becomes difficult due to language. We work in different time zones making it cumbersome to schedule times to talk. And because organizational structures and processes are not always aligned, it is often unclear who to reach out to. Add then national culture to those factors, and the situation becomes even more complex.
Us against Them
If the collaboration is the result of a merger of two companies, or of a merger of organizations within a company, then we might have an atmosphere of competition, of Us-versus-Them. There is the very human inclination to “ircle the wagons, to think in terms of tribes.
Having a common enemy is an effective way to paper over conflicts within one’s own culture. We begin thinking in terms of those Germans and those Americans. The Us-versus-Them dynamic becomes intensified when management on both sides purposely manipulates the fears of their people. The fire gets stoked. The tension is ratcheted up.
Then there is the danger of vulnerability. Even if both sides are open, honest, and willing to work together, addressing cultural differences (how the work is done) in a structured and informed way necessarily means being open to the possibility that the approach of the other culture is better, more effective, faster, less expensive.
And that possibility has real consequences, for real people, in real jobs, with real bills to pay. Opening up to each other can be felt, and therefore understood, to be a threat to job security, prestige, budgets, opportunities to advance. We suddenly become vulnerable.
And even if “their approach has no negative consequences for us, we sense quickly that doing things their way has its disadvantages. We become the junior-partner in the working relationship because their way is native to them yet foreign to us. Their way means very concrete things like processes, methods, tools, the very substance of our work day in and day out. Change is seldom comfortable.
All of the factors above are very good reasons to simply avoid the discussion, to not engage in a structured and informed discussion about cultural differences and their impact on how we want to work in global teams. The risks can be seen as too great. The situation becomes unpredictable. It becomes tense. We fear losing control.
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