Working in a Cross-cultural Environment: Where to Look for Cultural Gaps?

question marks in desertMulticultural, multinational, and multilingual teams are part and parcel of global organizations of today. This highlights the importance of cultural competencies, cross-cultural cooperation, and leadership of multinational teams. Indeed, the main question for many is how to do business and effectively manage in such a culturally diverse environment?

Cultural competence: too broad to grasp?

Well known work of David Livermore implies that the key to managing in this increasingly global and diverse business environment is the competence of cultural intelligence (CQ). In brief, CQ means being interested of culturally diverse settings and motivated to effectively function in them, knowing how cultures are similar and different, being aware of the moments when CQ is needed and strategizing the cross-cultural encounter, and finally being able to adapt one’s behavior to specific situations. Naturally, if you are curious and motivated to manage in culturally diverse teams, the first step towards cultural competence would be acquiring the knowledge about one’s own and other cultures. Otherwise how could one identify and act upon culturally challenging situations, if there is a lack of understanding of what exactly is different, misunderstood or falsely perceived by the other party? So, it is important to know about cultures. But what is exactly the knowledge we are looking for?

For example, a famous series of ‘DO’s and TABOOs around the world’ by Roger Axtell provides a wealth of information on customs, etiquette, hand gestures, and differences in body language across cultures. Apart from differences in such overt behaviors, there are also differences in cultural beliefs and values. For instance, there are large-scale value surveys conducted across culturally different populations by Shalom Schwartz and by Inglehart and Baker.

Looking more specifically into cultural differences related to business settings and global leadership, probably the most influential cultural mappings were done by Geert Hofstede, who developed cultural value dimensions based on large-scale data from IBM, and Robert House, the leader of the GLOBE project. For example, both frameworks can give information on cultural differences related to individualism-collectivism and power distance, which are among the most important value differences in the work context. In line with the aforementioned frameworks, the most recent version of work-related cultural differences is proposed by Erin Meyer from INSEAD.

The cultural gaps: where and what are we looking for?

Bringing together already existing research and frameworks, as well as adding research of her own, Erin Meyer presents a tool called culture map, which in my opinion provides a good overview for understanding business-relevant cultural differences. Meyer proposes that cultural gaps are most common in the following eight management behaviors: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling.

For example, when communicating with a foreign colleague, are your messages understood at face value (low-context communication) or is your colleague looking for deeper meaning and interpretations (high-context communication)? When in a leadership position, are your employees used to a more egalitarian approach where everyone is encouraged to challenge your ideas during the meeting, or is your position expected to project power distance? Moreover, during a meeting, is disagreement perceived as a sign of a bad teamwork, or, on the contrary, as a source of good teamwork? Is the trust in your team built upon personal relationships or successful task collaboration? Also, why does it happen that some employees stick to time schedules and preplanned agendas, while others tend to practice last minute changes and overall time flexibility?

I think the eight domains of managerial behavior proposed in the cultural map are useful to understand what to pay attention to in relation to the work environment, where the greatest cross-cultural misunderstandings could hide, and what exactly differs between people of distinct origins. When such cultural knowledge is acquired, it is time for acting upon this knowledge, which is definitely a topic worth a separate blog entry though.


Further reading:

Axtell, R. E., & Parker Pen Company. (1993). Do’s and taboos around the world. New York: Wiley.

House, R. J., & Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program. (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. PublicAffairs.

Schwartz, S. (2006). A theory of cultural value orientations: Explication and applications. Comparative Sociology, 5, 137-182.


One thought on “Working in a Cross-cultural Environment: Where to Look for Cultural Gaps?

  1. In case anyone didn’t know, High-context culture and the contrasting low-context culture are concepts presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. They relate to a culture’s tendency to use high-context messages over low-context messages in routine communication. This choice between speaking styles indicates whether a culture will cater to in-groups,

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