RSS Feed


More Articles: Latest Popular Archives

Cultural Awareness Means Nothing Unless You Apply It

Owen Cook

There’s a lot of noise out there about ‘cultural awareness’, there’s also a lot of great advice and insight. However, the trouble with awareness raising is always the same – we too often  stop at raising awareness and never progress to action, resulting in falling short of our potential impact. Contributor Owen Cook – Head of Programmes for Bank of Me, by The Culture Builders

A manager I worked with in the European arm of a Japanese company faced rising frustration over their ideas never getting traction. Each time they made a suggestion, it was received well – “Thank you. We will think about that”, “We will study that”. But then they would never hear back. They’d have to constantly chase and follow-up. In the meantime, over in Japan, people wondered why they hadn’t dropped the unsuitable idea – they’d said ‘no’ in the usual, polite and respectful way, what was the problem? 

Leaders and managers of global teams face numerous unacknowledged, often unseen challenges. Too often we wonder why international team members aren’t doing what’s being asked of them? Or why they don’t ‘get it’? And, more than likely, we sometimes wonder ‘what am I doing wrong?’.

What if no-one is really doing anything ‘wrong’? What if, despite awareness of our cultural differences, we still don’t understand how different cultures like to collaborate in practical terms?

If you manage a global team it’s likely you’ve had your fair share of challenges and have the scars to prove it. It’s also likely that you’ve borne the frustrations of issues without realising they may be cultural.

Cultural differences can explain everything from: too much communication, or too little; people who treat hierarchy like it’s non-existent, or like a military ranking; and, people upsetting each other by challenging in the middle of meetings, and those that always wait until the meeting has ended to do so (if at all). But what can you do to help, without becoming a ‘cultural expert’? Well let’s get practical – what might help?:

Work together to agree ‘ground rules’ around communication (for meetings, emails and phone calls) that will help, then work together to implement them. An example of this could be agreeing to shift the timing of team conference calls so each territory takes their turn with the less sociable hours.

Discuss what positive and negative feedback looks and sounds like in other cultures – build understanding of each other so that you can appreciate each others’ styles – if our European manager from earlier had known how the Japanese do negative feedback, they’d have avoided a lot of issues.

Know the etiquette of the culture you are working with, for example: whether it’s important to address certain people in the room first due to their position in order to be polite.This will avoid early boo-boos and get relationships off on the right foot.

Agree the decision making process that you’ll use as a team before the outset of your project – the who, how, when, and how much flexibility there will be on those things, including whether decisions can or will be revisited. This will iron out any culture differences in expectations and processes. 

Remember the standard amount of ‘social context’ expected in any communication differs from culture to culture, so you might need to flex your style depending on who you’re contacting and what for – especially if you’ve not been in contact for a while.

In some cultures, publicly offering opinion, feedback or questions is disrespectful. If this is the case, you can separate ideas and feedback from the people giving them by using an anonymised process e.g. questions on post-its into a pile in the middle of the table, or splitting the meeting into two phases on different days – presentation, then later in the week, questions or feedback. Be careful with on the spot questions too – in some cultures this is a no no. 

Discuss different approaches to timescales with your team, chances are you’ll find some cultures treat plans and timings as no more than a ‘guide’ or ‘advisory’, while others stick to them like dogma. Build clarity about which elements you all agree are ‘set in stone’ and which areas will need to be flexible, adapting to circumstance.

When presenting, get to know your audience’s preferences (and encourage your team to do so). Some cultures value knowing the evolution and background of an idea before the conclusion, others want the idea and how it’ll help in its application to be up front.

Some cultures have a broader tendency towards team-working, while others prefer to work alone. Find out people’s preferences and establish the right times and methods of involving and bringing in the wider team so no one gets overloaded or isolated.

Regardless of the size of your team around the world, you need to know and respect wider elements of their local culture. Simple things like observing each other’s public holidays and local calendars are essential (knowing them is a good start so you don’t arrange key meets on those dates).

Too often we start a role or a project and launch straight into it with a focus on what we’ll get done, when and by who… but we neglect the how. In global business in particular, there’s too much risk of misunderstanding and of wearing people down with assumed expectations. Try to make the first meeting (real or virtual) of any project or team about understanding each other, including the environments and cultures within which you operate, and how you will work together to best effect.


Jane Sparrow and Chris Preston – Bank of Me

Erin Meyer – The Culture Map

Dr Giles Spony.

Receive more HR related news and content with our monthly Enewsletter (Ebrief)