■Engaging Culture in the Global Workplace
Culture surrounds us, influencing how we see the world and how we interact with it. However, when was the last time you were conscious of your own culture? We usually become conscious of culture when dealing with individuals with a different cultural background. One example that many of us have experienced is when working with people from other countries. In such interactions, the apparent differences make us conscious of language and communication styles, as well as culturally specific behaviors.
The most common response to intercultural interactions is to focus on how different the person from the other culture is, rather than highlight our own cultural peculiarities. We take our own culture for granted – as a constant; we are “taught” our culture through an informal and formal education from birth (with the goal of becoming “cultured” mature individuals).
■Leaders Need High Level of Cultural Awareness
The importance of culture is not lost in the business world, as we are reminded by the many cross-cultural training and immersion programs that promise to open our minds on how best to leverage culture for our business needs. With Japanese companies increasing their global activities, there is a strong interest in how staff and managers can work with and across cultures so as to increase performance and strengthen organizational ties. Cultural interaction is not something that can be effectively outsourced or departmentalized, and effective global leaders must have a practical active understanding of national and corporate culture and be proactive in engaging culture in their business engagements.
■Breaking down this topic into smaller components, leaders must be able to
1. Understand their own geographical cultural components
2. Create value by maximizing cultural strengths across geographic cultural boundaries
3. Understand their own organization’s unique cultural components
4. Create value by maximizing shared organizational cultural strengths
■Understanding our Own Geographical Cultural Components
In trying to understand culture, perhaps the best known model is the Hall’s Iceberg Model of Culture, first introduced by renowned American anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1976.
Hall’s model breaks down culture into observable (surface-level) and unobservable (deeper) components. Like the tip of the iceberg, observable culture makes up only small ratio (~10%) of the overall culture, but is that which we see or feel immediately when interacting with those from other cultures, including specific behaviors / customs / language etc. (we see differences in “what” or “how” things are done”). The longer our interaction with a specific culture, the more we are exposed to the greater ratio (~90%) of deeper components, including various attitudes and beliefs common to that culture (we begin to understand the differences in “why” things are done). The deeper the layer of culture, the more “intuitive” and less “conscious” we are of the cultural component. At the base of all cultures are basic assumptions (core values) of right and wrong; which serve as the basis for all layers above. These basic assumptions are by definition, central to cultural values, and completely unconscious.
All of these layers are formed and shaped over time, like the iceberg, by internal and external forces. All too often we focus on trying to understand the differences in other cultures and forget to understand our own cultural background (not only what we do differently, but why we do the things we do). Only by being conscious of our own specific “departure point”, can we hope to work across cultures.
Let’s analyze one example from my cultural background: Communication in the US. While there are regional and personal variations, most Japanese see Americans as talkative and direct in our communication style (observable behavior). Americans are taught from a young age, through an emphasis on debate and “show and tell” assignments in school that it is important to have and express opinions clearly (beliefs / attitudes towards communication). Below this is an implicit assumption that having a strong opinion on a subject and expressing that directly to others is a good thing (even if it were to cause social friction). If we were to compare the above with customs, beliefs, and underlying assumption regarding communication in Japan, we would see stark differences at each level.
■Creating Value by Maximizing Cross-cultural Strengths
With cultural differences ever-present, how do we effectively work across cultures? In the past, companies looking to “internationalize” their staff invested greatly into language training and regional expertise (hoping to create “regional experts” by sending their staff on short or long-term overseas assignments). While these inputs are necessary, they only focus on the “other” culture, and not enough on reflecting to maximize the value created in the transition between cultures. Few organizations are as globally active as the US military, making cross-cultural competency a core priority of its staff. Work done by the US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) has highlighted the need of a separate cross-cultural competency, or ability to constructively bridge between your own and a target cultures. Adapting this concept to the business world gives us the following process for developing cross-cultural business competency.
Starting with self-awareness, leaders need to affirm their cultural departure point, paying attention to both the comparative strengths and weaknesses that it may imply. Based on this understanding, and with an adaptable mindset, they should focus on key differences within the target culture, making sure to give adequate weight to areas of comparative strengths / efficiencies. Last, and most importantly, having reflected on both sides of the cultural gap, leaders should then make an active change to how they approach business actions to fully leverage the strengths of both sides.
For many, this process will not come naturally due to a lifetime of learning why our unique culture is “right”. But while the specific geographic inputs may differ from culture to culture, we can all learn from the amassed knowledge contained in a different culture. Anyone who has ever worked with expatriate managers will know this to be especially true, since one of the key roles of someone stationed overseas is to act as a bridge between that location and the headquarters. We all know of examples of managers who see this as a “one-way bridge”, and their job is to simply continue their own work-style in a different country (without adapting or engaging in the cultural difference). Managers successful in an intercultural environment are those who are able to adapt appropriately so as to leverage the strengths of each culture.
■Understanding your company’s own cultural components
Obviously, each of our companies has its own organizational culture, with its own respective layers. The surface layer has what MIT’s organizational culture pioneer Edgar Schein, would call “artifacts” covering internal language, how reports are formatted, dress-codes, etc… These in turn have their own deeper cultural roots, based on the company’s history and stated core values. However, there are some key differences with compared to our geographical culture:
• Employees (and the company) “choose” one another based on an implied cultural fit
• Core assumptions / beliefs have a clear source (typically the founder or current top management)
• Core assumptions / beliefs are typically more documented (modern strategic planning calls for a shared corporate vision)
• Individual leaders can play a larger part in shaping their organization’s culture.
Leaders have the ability to steer their organizational iceberg if they are willing to actively use cultural levers and maintain a strong link between espoused values and actual cultural artifacts. In addition, they must take an active role in adapting their culture to meet the changing internal / external environment (unlike a national culture that simply changes naturally over time).
In his turnaround of IBM in the 1990s, Lou Gerstner was particularly conscious of the need to change the IT conglomerate’s cultural dynamics. Parallel to shifting the corporate strategy to better address the changing external business environment, Gerstner went to great pains to shift the company’s internally focused culture to an external one, reinvigorating the corporate culture of complacency and organizational inefficiency which had developed over the years.
■Embracing and empowering employees through the company’s core values
Companies looking to grow with globalization need the courage to engage all of their employees (both domestic and overseas) to interact with their company’s stated core values. There are concerns of how well these values may translate to other languages or be interpreted by employees from diverse national / cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, these risks are far outweighed by the increased loyalty / connection that staff feel when given the chance to actively engage their corporate values.
Western companies often take a systematic top-down approach to communicating core values. In some cases, this can lead to information overload (similar to advertisements) where employees filter out management’s message. In counterpoint, successful leaders like Lou Gerstner’s successor at IBM, Sam Palmasano directly engaged the company’s workforce through the ValuesJam 2003, a three day brainstorm and discussion initiative aimed at examining and revising the corporate culture.
Similarly, Japanese companies have the potential to tap a strong source of motivation by actively engaging their staff to think about their core values and corporate culture. Staff, regardless of nationality, have a strong interest in the core philosophy that drives their company. They already witness the “surface layer” of culture, as described above, and have a deep curiosity regarding the underlying “why” layer. This curiosity can be partially satisfied through booklets or posters, but these methods are far less effective compared to active discussions with staff from other parts of the organization. Japanese companies are very well positioned to leverage their company’s core values (due to their focus on company traditions and history), but all too often shy away from allowing such interactive discussions of this topic.
■Conclusion: Be Conscious of Culture
While culture-related issues are often relegated to top management, strategic planning, or human resources functions, a more holistic and conscious engagement is necessary. Today’s business professionals in every level / functional area must take an active role account of culture and its implications to the global organization. Companies should also make sure to engage their staff and facilitate a discussion of their core values and the connection with their daily work and future company direction, focusing on both the diversity of opinions as well as core shared concepts.