We know that cultures are different; we marvel at how many variations there are across the world in the way people kiss, bow, and shake hands, in their customs and rituals, in their manners and mannerisms — in the visible culture of the planet.
We are awed by the depth and breadth of the mythology, the history, the geography, the religions, the literature, and the languages of the world’s societies — that’s a region’s core culture.
But when it comes to values, beliefs, and philosophies — the hidden culture of humankind — the world’s pre-eminent sociologists and ethnographers have found that there are only a few ways in which people across the world are different.
If we can discover what those different norms are, assess where we and others stand on them, and move towards bridging the gaps, we can be much more effective in understanding and working with each other in business.
Here are some of the cultural norms whose mastery can enable us to evolve as global leaders. (Keep in mind, of course, that the characterisations of each country mentioned in the examples are generalisations — individuals vary, in any culture.)
Do you view the world vertically or horizontally, as an organisation chart or as a matrix, as a chain of centralised command or as a linked set of independent actions?
If we think of these viewpoints as a continuum, at one end is an authoritarian approach to governance. Here, your governance style will be biased towards obtaining alignment. On the other end is an egalitarian view, with a governance style biased towards preserving autonomy. Each one entails different ways of getting things done that need to be kept in mind if you are interacting with clients or colleagues in, say, Japan (authoritarian) or Australia (egalitarian).
Is your perspective more team-oriented or team member-oriented, we-focused or me-focused, collectivistic or individualistic?
In America, for example, John Wayne still rides, the solitary hero. Reward and recognition programmes tend to focus on individuals, not on teams. Zuckerberg birthed Facebook, Bezos created Amazon, Gates built Microsoft. The teams that were surely a part of their success don’t get as much coverage.
In some other countries, however, like South Korea, the emphasis is on fitting in, not standing out. Performance discussions are about not letting the team down. Welcome to the Fellowship of the Ring.
On this dimension, if you are we-focused, your decision-making will likely be biased towards gaining consensus from others. If you are me-focused, your decision-making is probably biased towards your convictions.
People-oriented versus task-driven
Are you relationship-oriented or task-oriented, friendly or factual, people-focused or proficiency-focused?
If you are in the first category, as is common in Mexico, you believe that getting to know people deeply at a personal level is a necessary precursor to getting work done, that trust and comfort level are important to grease the skids of task delivery, and that time spent in relationship-building is an investment.
If you are in the second category in each set, as folks in Canada tend to be, you are probably focused on effectiveness and efficiency at work, with less time or effort spent on what you regard as idle chitchat and wasteful downtime. Your conference calls and meetings have an agenda that is sacrosanct, and you assess others on competence rather than conviviality.
If you are task-focused on this spectrum, chances are that your execution approach is biased towards achieving the right outcomes. If you are relationship-focused, your execution style may be more biased towards deploying the right processes.
Is what you reveal relevant, but what you conceal critical? Do you tell the truth, but not the whole truth, because you tend to focus on the positive and want to avoid confrontation? That might mean you have an indirect communication style, and your feedback might be biased towards feelings, as often happens in Saudi Arabia.
On the flipside, if you believe that being tactful is overrated, that cutting to the chase yields clarity, and that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, chances are you have a direct communication style, and your feedback may be biased towards facts, as often is the case in Germany. Keep in mind that communication is not only cultural but is also personal — and sometimes personal styles overrule cultural ones.
What is your view on time? Is it mostly an expansive notion, and do you find yourself extracting the most from the present at the expense of planning and scheduling for the future? Are you mostly good at juggling multiple things at the same time versus doing them sequentially? If so, your orientation towards time is fluid and your planning approach is likely to be more opportunistic, and you might be a good fit in a country like Spain.
On the other hand, if time mostly represents a valuable, nonreplenishable asset to you, one that needs to be invested carefully and wisely, and if being on time is important to you, your time orientation is primarily fixed, and your planning approach is probably proactive. Your days might be highly scheduled, and you might prefer focusing on one thing at a time, as in Switzerland.
Some countries, like Thailand, have a prevalent culture that is comfortable with a slower, evolutionary pace of change. Jobs, companies, bosses, homes, and relationships tend to be more stable, and there is emphasis on risk aversion when making choices.
Other countries, like Norway, for example, tend to be comfortable with a more rapid, revolutionary pace of change, and are more risk prone in making choices. Taking chances and making big bets in terms of strategy and career choices is looked upon favourably, with less mention of the failures and less focus on maintaining stability in one’s life.
In some countries, like France, 35-hour workweeks, 10 weeks of time off, and 12 weeks of sick time annually are the norm. People believe that they work to live, not live to work. Some people’s lifestyles can be skewed towards maintaining a healthy personal life, and their values can be focused on replenishment.
Elsewhere, as in China, being successful at work is an important part of one’s self-image. Lifestyles are orchestrated to achieve professional success, and accomplishment at work can be highly prized and valued.
What is your profile along these dimensions? And what are the profiles of your boss, your clients, your business partners, your external stakeholders, your direct reports, and your colleagues? If you have a good understanding of this, your global cultural dexterity is high, and you will be better able to customise your approach and bridge the gap with different constituencies more effectively in order to attain your professional and personal objectives.
Suri Surinder is co-founder and CEO of CTR Factor, a consulting firm that helps accounting firms advance inclusive leadership and diverse environments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, FM magazine associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.