Ignore cultural differences at your own peril

Apt approach Decision-making and even the notion of work-life balance can vary across cultures

For over four decades, our world has been steadily globalising. Initially, it was all about the west attracting foreign talent to meet their domestic needs (e.g. the wave of migration that took several Indian doctors to the US and UK in the 1960s and 70s).

That phase was followed by a trickle of exports to countries like India. In course of time, as tariff barriers were lowered and economics (and policies) dictated local manufacture, companies of foreign origin started to make and sell their products in India. Some even exported their goods from India to neighbouring markets.

Today, many companies source strategic, high-value services like R&D and product design from India. And of course, many Fortune 500 companies rely on India-based teams to run their IT projects, either on outsourced basis or through their own captive centres. In the last few years, Indian businesses houses have used M&A as an active strategy to gain a foothold in western markets (e.g. The Tatas acquiring Jaguar Land Rover and Corus).

In theory, globalisation is a valid business strategy. However, to what extent it succeeds depends on how effectively the members of multicultural teams in your organisation gel with each other and how well they can work towards a common goal. This is an important point because by definition, globalisation requires your teams to harness multicultural diversity because after all, you could have customers, partners, employees and prospects from different nationalities.

Similar practice

Korean and Japanese companies almost inevitably have an expatriate as the CEO of their India businesses. American and British companies too generally follow a similar practice, as indeed do most MNCs. Captive centres are headed by foreign nationals or Indians returning after a long sting in overseas markets. Services to foreign clients are delivered by teams of Indians working for Indian companies, especially in the IT and ITES industries.

Things are generally hunky dory during the sales discussions and contract negotiations, as the total time spent by various parties in engaging with each other generally does not exceed more than a few days or weeks. But once the celebrations associated with winning the deal are over, little cracks start to appear.

Western client

The western client, for example, complains that “the Indian team members are always 5-10 minutes late” for their scheduled weekly calls. “Today is “Ugadi”, the start of our New Year”, gripe the Bangalore-based team members. “Would our client be willing to get on a call at 8:00 am on January 1?” they ask in aggrieved tones. Both sides are entitled to their points of view, but the inability to recognise and bridge such cultural schemes can be potentially disastrous for business.

Cross-cultural differences are a part of our life and there is no getting away from them. Indeed, even within our own country, there are so many distinct flavours of culture. Our cultural conditioning plays an important role in shaping the way we communicate with people or how we react to certain situations.

Styles of leadership, decision-making, and even the notion of work-life balance can vary significantly across cultures.

The death of a parent, for example, though a source of grief in all cultures, may be a 2-3 day affair in the west, as opposed to possibly requiring a 2 week break in the Indian context. This need to be away from work for an extended period of time may not be easily understood by an overseas client or colleague.

“Culture” also manifests itself in how well people are able to articulate disagreement, especially with the boss (or client). For example, in a meeting with western clients, it is common for Indians in the room (even senior ones) to agree to deadlines that they all know are not reasonable.

The client probably comes from a culture where it is ok to say something like “no, that is not possible in this timeframe; it will take at least a week more… and here’s why the extra time is needed”.

In fact, most clients appreciate insights even if they militate against their going-in position, provided the reasons are genuine and logically explained.

Not having been told by the team that the proposed timeline is infeasible, the client assumes- mistakenly, in this case- that the work will get delivered by the stipulated date.  What typically ensues is that the team in India has to work extra hours over the next couple of weeks in order to meet what the team knew to be an unrealistic deadline right from the start. Are you surprised that resentment starts to build against the client within your team?

Face value

Take another example. During a meeting, a client from the UK says “well, you could say that”. It is entirely possible for someone who is from a different culture to innocently misunderstand that statement and take it at face value, when in fact, what the client may have really meant was more like “well, (I suppose) you could say that, (but if I were you, I wouldn’t)”. Quite possibly, someone who understands the underlying nuance may react differently from someone who does not.

The way different cultures use expressions such as “great job!” or “that’s brilliant, thanks” can also cause unintended confusion. I am sure you’ve conducted performance appraisals where “evidence of performance” is presented in the form of half a dozen mails that contain one-liners such as those mentioned above.

Calling a spade a spade is how most western cultures communicate. Not for them attempts to sugar-coat the core message they want to deliver. For many of us Indians, a statement such as “the number of bugs we encountered in the last release was not acceptable” may come across as being rude. For a western client, though, it is in the same league as a statement of fact, such as “he is wearing a dark suit” or “she is very good at detecting programming errors”.

The ease with which many of us are able to interrupt others cannot be matched by too many other cultures. This is yet another cultural difference between western and Indian cultures. A client from the west would consider interruptions as a sign of rudeness or lack of basic business etiquette.

But for us, it is our eagerness to make what we think is an important point, possibly with the noble objective of bringing into the discussion something that was hitherto ignored or not considered. Cultural differences can thus manifest in many ways, and they can adversely impact communication within teams. In turn, that can impede the process of building and sustaining trust, especially between “them” and “us”. Where there is no trust, it is foolish to expect collaboration, innovation or consistently client-centric behaviour.

It is thus important for team leads and managers to be sensitive to the existence of real cultural differences and appreciate the potential risks. Ideally, training interventions aimed at building effective teams or enhancing communication must at least make teams and their leaders/managers prima facie aware of the cultural differences that might exist among various members of the team as also between different categories of stakeholders.

Unless such cultural gaps are proactively addressed, the organisation may be crippled and hamstrung in its ability to achieve its goals not just in terms of revenue and margin growth but also goals around containing attrition, developing its people, engaging employees and fostering a culture of collaboration and innovation.

Note: This article looks at “culture” rather simplistically as generalised national behavioural traits. In reality, “culture” is a construct that is made up of many different layers. Differences in some of these dimensions of culture, e.g. gender, socio-economic, generational and organisational also cause heterogeneity in teams. Within a team, diversity is good, but the leader must be able to harness it positively so as to achieve team goals. Diversity should not be allowed to become a divisive force.

(The writer is a freelance HR consultant and trainer)

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