Working in Other Cultures

As someone who regularly works outside the US, the dynamics of how other cultures work interests me - both as a theoretical and practical exercise. This drew me to an AIChE webinar titled "Working Across Cultures." Culture is a complicated weave of many things, but the practical point I took from this webinar was that culture is a framework of logic, reasoning, and priorities - a decision-making matrix.

When traveling abroad, the demarcation between cultures can be fairly obvious. Get on a plane for several hours, stand in lines marked 'Foreigners,' and get a passport stamp. These are all concrete indicators that you are not in Kansas - soon to be followed by less concrete, but still fairly obvious, indicators. Maybe a meeting has an extended "social period" where people talk about non-work topics before getting down to business. Maybe the plant manager is hurrying around serving tea for visiting upper management. Maybe you are grilled regarding your age, marital status, offspring, and salary by colleagues you met less than five minutes ago.

Recently, working domestically for a change, I noticed that these highly visible differences, often seen as a challenge, have certain benefits. Their visibility makes everyone aware and puts everyone in a different frame of mind. In these cases I am more aware of my surroundings and prepared to be open to new perspectives or concepts. I also try to be a little more patient with requests that may seem strange, to explain concepts more thoroughly careful, not to use any buzzwords and catch phrases.

Within the American workplace the differences are often less visible (while my boss may arrange to have coffee available for his boss on a visit, it is not likely he will do the actual brewing and fetching) but with the diversity present, there are likely different matrices in play, even on small teams.

Decision-making matrices - or cultures - can clash from across oceans, countries, streets, even cubicles. Company cultures are examined in the business world when evaluating mergers and acquisitions. Different departments within the same company can have major communication problems. It can also be more lighthearted; my friends often enjoy a couple rounds of engineer vs. architect. But project success often rides on how the different decision-making matrices mesh together. Being aware of these different hierarchies, how to move between them, and how to align them to work in harmony (instead of conflict) are increasingly valuable skills in today's world. Variations of these concepts are also explored under frameworks such as Emotional Quotients or personality/work-type grids such as Myer-Briggs. I am also fascinated by the interplay between personality types and cultures - like what the same personality type would look like in different cultures. But we will have to save that for another discussion.

On my current project, I may have initially been overly relaxed. Working with a customer with a high level of knowledge in a common language, I was expecting a straightforward project. What I really got was a severe case of culture shock. I entered a highly organized and regimented environment where almost everyone had been involved with a lengthy planning process - complete with code words. There were intricate documentation channels to navigate. The company culture valued internal documented results over external theories with uncorroborated data - providing quite a challenge as all of my experience, by definition, came from outside and could not include detailed documentation. As a result, early in the project I struggled to get my bearings, struggled to be heard, struggled to contribute to moving the project forward. It got better and things finished smoothly, but had I entered the situation better prepared mentally it could have been more efficient from the outset.

A key aspect is to tailor communications and interactions to the specifics of your audience. Will it be more effective to have written instructions with the finest detail explained or verbally present the project objectives and let them "get it done"? Will project updates require a formal meeting or a brief chit-chat on the way to lunch? Do you need to arrive early for a meeting or can you expect a waiting period? Process engineers may be interested in how new construction will disrupt their current operations, while sales will make pitches based on when the final product will be available at what cost, and at the same time your manager needs to know how expected return on investment will impact his annual budget. Knowledge of local dynamics and preparation are keys to building quality working relationships within your team, providing the foundation for success.

This doesn't mean we need to treat Ed from sales or Jill from accounting like they are from different planets, but be prepared for different perspectives. Different people can look at the same set of data and arrive at different conclusions. Remember, it is likely no one was involved (or is interested) in all the details of design, equipment selection, and construction, so use plain language and select the details important to the audience. Maybe Ed is more interested in schedules, but would like to get them finalized before sharing his son's soccer exploits. Meanwhile, Jill may want to talk about the latest trade in your fantasy football league before analyzing budgets. These details help build quality working relationships that help communication and increase the chances of success.

What cultural clues have you seen in effect?

Photos: Japanese businessmen, tokyoform via Flickr; businessmen meeting with Saudi prince, Curtis Palmer via Flickr


whitney's picture

Not very well written or organized, and really had no point other thann "people are different in different places and in order to work well with them you have to adjust." Specific tips for dealing with specific cultures would have been better worth my time.

Hi, Whitney. Sorry you didn't get out of this piece what you were looking for. But are there specific areas you're interested in? You can use the comments are to have a discussion with the author.

Robert S's picture

Sorry you did not see the intent of the piece. I was trying to share that some of my most jarring experiences with different people have been closer to home. A reminder to be aware of different people and working methods regardless of where you are. I sympathize with your comment that there are not many specific tips for dealing with different cultures, I have sat through many presentations without a satisfying end. I was trying to share what I thought was practical observation to come out of one of those presentations - that cultures represent a framework and knowing the framework helps navigation. It is difficult to give specifics since there are so many variables in each specific situation. Overall, I think that many problems are solved simply by staying aware that everyone has a different perspective.