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Big Mistakes Companies Make Working Across Borders – #1

Big Mistakes Companies Make Working Across Borders – #1

In the next few weeks, I'm going to explore some of the big mistakes that companies make when they work across international borders. There's a lot to say here, so we're going to take it one mistake at a time.

Mistake #1 - Failing to Appreciate Other People's Cultural Values

Imagine that you work for Creative Co., a cutting-edge creative services agency in Sydney. Hierarchy within the agency is next to non-existent, the team turns up to work in jeans each day and the CEO, Sally Smith is know to everyone as "Sally" (or sometimes "Smithy").

Creative Co. is bidding for some work in Kuwait and the Kuwait company sends its CEO, Mr Mohsen Abdullah, an account director and a new recruit to Sydney to meet the Creative Co. team.

Because they know almost nothing about Kuwait, Creative Co's employees turn up wearing jeans on the day of the visit. They shake hands with the new recruit first, address the visiting CEO as "Mohsen" and serve BLTs (bacon, lettuce and tomat0 sandwiches) for lunch.

Even though Creative Co.'s work is outstanding, the visit does not go well and Creative Co. is not awarded the contract. So, what went wrong?

Recognising the Importance of Culture

Each of us has values, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives on the world that we have learned throughout our lifetime. They come from our family and friends, our school, our place of work, the media which we consume and the society in which we live. This is our “culture” - the patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that each of us have been programmed with, the software of the mind. Or, to put it another way, the unwritten rules of the social game that all of us play.

 If most of your personal and professional experience has been gained in your home country, you might not recognise that people from elsewhere have different cultural values. In other words, you might be unaware that people from other societies think differently (and have different standards) about what is acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant, right or wrong. The team at Creative Co. clearly didn't have a clue!

Or, you might know that people from other cultures see life differently, but believe that your cultural values are the "right" ones. This isn't very surprising. If we are only exposed to one way of seeing the world throughout our lives, it is quite likely that we will believe that the way we know is correct.

The problem is that the differences in people's thinking, feeling and acting can be very significant and frequently lead to misunderstandings and sometimes to disagreements and strained relationships. This is "cross-cultural" conflict.

What kind of cross-cultural differences show up in a professional context?

There are many cross-cultural differences which become apparent once you start working with international teams, so let's just look at one: approaches to hierarchy.

In Australia for example, a core value is that all people are fundamentally equal. In the context of a workplace, this often translates into teams with very flat structures, where hierarchy scarcely exists. Communication between team members is informal and direct and staff are expected to show the same level of respect to all employees, regardless of rank. Both managers and employees expect to be consulted and information is shared frequently.  In an Australian company it is acceptable to call your CEO by his (or her) first name and swap jokes with him (or her).

Professional cultures elsewhere are quite different, even in European countries. In Greece, for example, most people believe that hierarchy should be respected and inequalities amongst people are acceptable.  In Greek companies there is one boss who takes complete responsibility and status symbols of power are very important in order to indicate social position.

In the context of a Kuwaiti company, respect for seniority is important. Senior representatives of a company expect to be addressed by their formal title and in a group meeting, the expectation is that the most senior member of a group will be greeted first. Kuwaiti culture is also quite formal and office attire in most places is traditional dress, or a suit (if you're from the West).

So, how does"cross-cultural" conflict show up in a professional context?

Cross-cultural conflict often shows up when people from different paces try to work together to get things done. Sometimes it can be as simple as not understanding how the hierarchy works in the someone else's country.

In Creative Co.'s case, no one in the team knew that the Kuwaiti client would have totally different expectations about hierarchy. The staff weren't aware that dressing informally, greeting the most junior guest first and calling a senior person by his first name are disrespectful in a hierarchical culture. No-one made the effort to find out what kind of culture they were dealing with, and they paid for it.

As for the Kuwaiti company, their staff didn't know that Australian culture is informal and that people often prefer to be called by their first names. They also didn't take the time to find out about Australian traditions, such as the custom that everyone gets equal recognition.

When you don't recognise the cultural differences between you and people from elsewhere you run the risk of offending them. In a professional setting this could complicate your business relationship and might even ruin a deal.

So, how do you avoid blowing up an international business relationship with cross-cultural blunders?

It's not rocket science, but it does take a little patience and effort. My five top tips are:

  1. Recognise that you inhabit a cultural bubble which is different from the one which surrounds people from other places.
  2. Consider the possibility that your values aren't better than other values, they're just different.
  3. Take the time and effort to learn about other cultures - there is plenty of material out there.
  4. Get to know people who have different cultural values to you. The better you get to know them, the more you'll realise that they actually aren't that different.
  5. If in doubt - ask an expert. It could mean the difference between winning and losing a deal or making or breaking a business relationship.

For more on how to successfully navigate the nuances of doing business in the Middle East, check out my book, Camels, Sheikhs and Billionaires: Your Guide to Business Culture in the Middle East and North Africa.

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About Cynthia Dearin

Cynthia Dearin is an international business expert, business author and keynote speaker on the topic of leadership. She owns Dearin & Associates, an international business consulting firm specialising in fast-growing emerging markets, which provides companies with the commercial intelligence and strategies, cultural skills and trusted contacts that they need to succeed in new countries.

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