It was in 2014 when I traveled with a small group of people to Vietnam. We landed in Hanoi with the plan to go to the Ha Long Bay and then travel south through Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang all the way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
The focus of the trip was discovering the culture and the incredibly rich history of Vietnam. It was a great trip, starting with the mesmerizing views of the Ha Long Bay, through the layback atmosphere of Hoi An, the vast imperial city of Hue, taking the overnight train south, boating the mighty Mekong river, and finally trying to squeeze through the tunnels of Cu Chi.
We enjoyed the local cuisine and even learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. We also learned one additional and the rather unexpected thing that shows how even small cultural differences can turn into life or death experiences.
When we landed in Hanoi, one thing immediately hit us as different. Coming from the heart of Europe we were taken aback by the vast amount of motorcycles all around us. It felt like every single Vietnamese owns a scooter or a motorbike.
The traffic is reasonably organized, and motorists tend to observe the traffic lights. So far so good. However, when it comes to pedestrian crossing, it is not that great. We stayed in Hanoi two days and two nights, and it became quite an adventure to walk around the city.
The habits we learned as small children didn’t work here. In Europe, you are taught from an early age that before you step into a road, you carefully look left, right, and left again, and only when there is no vehicle coming you cross the street. It works great in most of Europe (except the countries where you drive on the other side of the road).
Trying this in Vietnam didn’t work at all. There is traffic coming all the time, and with this method, we waited for five, even ten minutes before being able to cross the street.
We had to adapt to the local customs. The advice we’ve got was simple, “when you see a small gap in the traffic, just look straight ahead, and in slowly cross the street.” The idea is that you need to be predictable. You shouldn’t try to stop or predict the traffic. You let the motorcyclists clearly see you and be able to predict your movements so they can avoid you.
It works like a charm. If you want to be double sure just follow another advice I’ve got in a couple of different countries with a bit erratic traffic, “always have a local person between you and the traffic and follow their lead.”
So what does all this have to do with the corporate life?
If you are expanding globally and you want to be successful in the new locations you need to be willing to learn and adapt. There are some processes and approaches that may work well in your home country but that will create havoc and won’t work at all in a different culture.
To be able to make your global team successful and able to work well together you need to start at the beginning. You need to start with cultural awareness. For you and your team to understand at least a bit how things are done in the remote location is a must.
Don’t make any assumptions. Assumptions usually don’t work even within your own culture, and they definitely don’t work with a culture that is significantly different.
Before you start a project with a distributed team make sure people have an opportunity to learn a bit about each other cultures and then agree on what the “team culture” should actually look like.
I recently had an interesting conversation that summarizes this nicely. The team working on a product was distributed across two locations in the USA and in the Czech Republic. There was friction. Both teams had great people, everyone tried their best, and still, the collaboration didn’t go particularly smoothly.
It started with a different perspective on what “decision” actually means and how decisions are made. Everyone understood that the team needs to move fast, but each team had a different way to get there.
The team in the USA would briefly discuss and then just make a decision and move forward. If they later found that the approach didn’t work, they would change the decision and keep going.
The team in the Czech Republic would spend significantly more time on discussing all the details, talk about risks, trying to get more data and eventually arrive at a decision everyone was comfortable with. But that decision was a “Decision”. Now the team could move really fast without second guessing and get the job done.
Obviously, each approach has its pros and cons. There is no right way to make decisions. But it creates a lot of friction if each team keeps doing it their way when some of the decision are common for both teams. Then one team feels the other team takes too much time to make a decision, while the other team feels the first one is making chaotic rush decisions and then changing them all the time.
All that is needed is for both teams to get together, acknowledge different ways of how they make decisions in these cultures and agree on the way decisions will be done on this team. People can be incredibly flexible, but they need to understand the rules and expectations.
And it is not only about a decision-making process. If you want to set your global team for success, you want to discuss and understand a variety of aspects. Erin Meyer in her book The Culture Map talks about these cultural dimensions:
- Communicating (low-context vs. high-context cultures)
- Evaluating (direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback)
- Persuading (principles-first vs. applications first)
- Leading (egalitarian vs. hierarchical)
- Deciding (consensual vs. top-down)
- Trusting (task-based vs. relationship-based)
- Disagreeing (confrontational vs. avoids confrontations)
- Scheduling (linear-time vs. flexible-time)
To map where different parts of your team stand on these scales and then discussing what does it mean for the way you work can be crucial for setting expectations and removing friction from collaboration and communication within the team.
“Don’t use cultural stereotypes to automatically label people because even within the same culture each of us is different.”
The only word of caution I would have is for you to be careful and not use the cultural stereotype indiscriminately. Understanding another culture is a way to open your mind and be more willing to accept other ways of working. You shouldn’t use it to automatically label people because even within the same culture each of us is different. It is not only the culture we were brought up in that forms who we are. It is also our basic personal characteristics, education and life experiences that play a big role.
Let me illustrate this on the way I work. You could say that my leadership style should be based on the cultural stereotypes connected with the Czech Republic. I was born there, educated, and spend most of my life there.
When I started analyzing the way I act from a cultural perspective, I realized that my approach to work and to leadership changed in 2014. Why? I spent a year in the Philippines being exposed to the local culture. Some things that used to work for me in Europe were not working in Asia. So I adapted.
After I came back to Europe, I realized I brought with me some of the habits I had to develop to be successful in Manila. Today, my leadership style is a combination of these two. I always try to use the approach that I believe will work better in a particular situation and in a given cultural context but sometimes I surprise even myself about the way I act as it doesn’t fit the cultural stereotype I have about the country I was born in.
So before you start berating your remote team for not meeting your expectations always consider the cultural context. Make sure you agree, and I mean truly agree, with the team on what are the principles you want to follow and make sure you understand “how to cross the street” in any location your team works from.
What is your take on centralized decision making versus tapping the local knowledge? How do you ensure a consistent company culture across different locations, countries, and continents? How much do you focus on cultural differences and intercultural communication and collaboration?
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