Increase Your Team’s Performance with The Culture Map

I’ve been living in Malaysia for over five years, working for a company that employs more than 60 nationalities. My first Scrum team had eight nationalities (out of eight team members) spread across all spectrums of cultural differences. My family is also multicultural (my son has Romanian-Malaysian genes, plus influences from Romanian, Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cultures).

Coaching my first team (and following teams) was a challenge and an enormous learning opportunity. Of course, it had its blunders (like when I upset a Malaysian colleague with direct feedback), but slowly we learned about each other’s differences and moved towards understanding.

Two primary sources of learning and inspiration helped: Geert Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions and Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, the book is accompanied by an excellent online tool.

As Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are popular, I will focus on Erin Meyer’s framework, briefly present it and show how you can include it in your coaching practice. If you want to find out your country profile, jump to the end of this post; I showcased many examples.

Erin Meyer Culture Map

Meyer’s model contains eight scales, each representing a key area, showing how cultures vary on a spectrum between extremes.

1. Communication

Effective communication differs dramatically from culture to culture. The West – US and Anglo-Saxon countries – communicates quite literally and explicitly; by contrast, Asian cultures (e.g. China, India, Japan, Indonesia) convey messages implicitly, with a lot of the meaning left between the lines, just like many African cultures (Kenya, Zimbabwe), to a lesser degree Latin American cultures (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina) and Latin European countries (Spain, Italy, Portugal, France).

This contrast is explained as low-context cultures and high-context cultures. The cultural scale of communication looks like this:

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 1.1

To navigate cultural differences in communication, you must adapt to different communication styles and become an “agile communicator“. Erin Meyer suggests some strategies:

  • Working with people from high-context cultures:
    • Practice listening more carefully (you need to find out what is said between the lines). Listen to what is meant, not only said.
    • Pay attention to body language.
    • Ask open-ended questions to give the other person space (no yes or no questions).
    • Clarify when you are not sure you understood the message.
    • Don’t assume bad intentions 🙂
  • Working with people from low-context cultures:
    • Be as transparent, clear, and specific as possible.
    • Don’t read between the lines, but state what is unclear and ask for clarification if needed.
    • At the end of the discussion, recap what was agreed on to ensure you have the same understanding.
    • Don’t be highly polite. Ask as many questions as you need to understand the context. 

2. Evaluating

Speaking frankly can be a gift or a slap in the face“. Giving feedback is probably the most sensitive aspect of working with others, and it can go very wrong, just as it went with one of the teams I coached during my first year as a Scrum Master.

My former company had a weekly all-hands meeting to celebrate our wins. Unfortunately, one of my teams had a meeting scheduled during that period. I noticed and let everyone know that we can’t use that time for a different session, as everyone has to be present at the company-wide one. I chose this approach rather than sharing it with the person who set the meeting to avoid putting them on the spot and making them feel bad.

In our performance review, two team members said I offended them by saying we should not set meetings during that time. They are the ones who always remind everyone else about it. I learned when I received the (written) feedback. I used the opportunity to talk to my colleagues, understand our different feedback styles, and learn about each other.According to Meyer, the opposite sides of the feedback dimensions are direct and indirect negative feedback.

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 2.2

Figuring out the best way to give feedback to a person from a different cultural dimension is correlated with the low-context / high-context quadrant:

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 2.3

Low-context and direct negative feedback (quadrant A)

Try to do it differently than them (e.g. the Netherlands), especially if your cultural dimension is on the opposite quadrant. It is possible to be too direct (I had feedback that made me cringe and take a breather to calm down from a straightforward, low-context approach).

High-context and direct negative feedback (quadrant B)

Work with a person from a high context and direct negative feedback (like Russia). You must make an effort to increase awareness of cultural differences to increase collaboration. They might need to understand the impact their feedback has on others.

For example, if you are unhappy with a company’s IT, don’t tell them they are incompetent, nor raise your voice when talking to them. Instead, make sure you can express your request calmly and politely. Make an extra effort to be polite.

Low-context and indirect negative feedback (quadrant C)

The best approach to work with the American-style feedback model is to be very clear and keep it positive:

  • Be explicit and low-context with both positive and negative feedback.
  • Try to be balanced about the amount of positive and negative feedback you give.
  • Frame your behaviour in cultural terms. Then, discuss your cultural differences and the feedback’s impact on your different-culture peers.

Use downgraders: instead of “it was a total disaster”, use “it was a bit of a disaster“.

High-context and indirect negative feedback (quadrant D)

Among this quadrant, the feedback is soft, implicit, and subtle. To work well with people from this category, you should:

  • Always give feedback to an individual in private, not in front of the group. Including positive feedback; in cultures less individualistic than the US, getting feedback is embarrassing (even if it’s positive!).
  • Blur the message, especially when working with people from many Asian cultures. The direct message might offend and make people “lose face” (a term I found here in Asia).
    • Give feedback slowly, over time, so it sinks in gradually, not in one go.
    • Use food and drinks to blur the message.
    • Say the good and leave out the bad. It might sound counterintuitive – how do you give negative feedback without giving negative feedback after all? Erin Meyer had an example: a colleague received four papers from a report, out of which two were sloppy; she called the colleague and thanked her for the documents, mentioning that the first two were good; thus, she indirectly implied that the last two were not that good.

Living in Malaysia, a country with a high-context and indirect negative feedback pattern, I accompany my feedback emails with a short request to keep it direct. Otherwise, it would be difficult for me to act upon it. If I still get vague feedback (from my perspective), I have a clarifying session to dig deeper.

3. Leading

In the 70s, Geert Hofstede created the “power distance” indicator based on surveys made on over 100,000 IBM employees. Power distance is “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed inequally” (source). Professor Robert House in the Globe Project calibrated the data.

According to Meyer, power distance relates to questions like:

  • How much respect or deference is shown to an authority figure?
  • How god-like is the boss?
  • Is it acceptable to skip layers in your company? For example, should you go through your boss if you want to send a message to his boss?
  • When you are the boss, what gives you an aura of authority?

Therefore, Meyer’s framework categorises cultures in two: low power distance (egalitarian), which presents less inequality and hierarchy and high power distance (hierarchical), which presents higher inequality and hierarchical relationships (e.g., every person has their place, people expect to be told what to do, and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat).

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 4.1

Find below a more detailed explanation of egalitarian vs hierarchical, as presented by Erin Meyer in The Culture Map:

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 4.3

How do you manage in a hierarchical culture?

  • Recognise and respect the hierarchy.
  • Address your higher management by their last name unless you agree otherwise. Accept your team’s addressing you in the same manner.
  • Understand and follow the etiquette (e.g. shake hands with the boss first in China).
  • No level-hoping: keep your boss informed if you’re contacting someone in a higher position. If you email someone at a lower level than you, copy their boss.
  • Communicate with people at your level.

I find things slightly simpler in an egalitarian culture (that also fits my working model):

  • Go directly to the source if. You need information. There is no need to talk to the boss.
  • Think twice before copying the boss; it might send the message that you don’t trust the recipient or want to control her.
  • Easily skip hierarchical levels.
  • Use the first name when writing emails (check the cultural norms first, some egalitarian cultures don’t find this acceptable).

4. Deciding

The Deciding dimensions look at how people make decisions: through consensus – Consensual, or individually, following hierarchy, Top-down. Most Egalitarian societies have a consensual decision-making process. However, there are some outliers: 

  • The US is Egalitarian but leans towards Top-down decision-making; 
  • Germany is more Hierarchical but has a Consensual approach to decision-making;
  • Japan is Hierarchical but ultra-consensual (it’s the extreme of Consensual decision-making on the spectrum).

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 5.3

There is no right or wrong here: consensual decision-making or top-down is as effective (if the decision is adequate). The issues arise in multicultural environments where people have expectations according to their cultural upbringing.

If you are working in a consensual decision-making environment, here are Erin Meyer’s strategies to pull through:

  • Be aware that the process will take longer and involve more conversations (online or offline).
  • Be patient and committed to the group decision, even if you don’t participate.
  • Be available for questions and share opinions if asked.
  • Check-in with your closest colleagues to find out where the group is in their decision-making (or you might need to be included in the loop).
  • Refrain from pushing for fast decisions; focus on the quality and completeness of the information and the fact that the commitment will be higher (once the decision is made).
  • Remember that decisions made are difficult to change.

If you are part of a group of people who have a top-down approach to decision-making, Meyer proposes a different set of coping techniques:

  • There will be fewer discussions, and the boss will make the decisions (without necessarily consulting you).
  • Follow the decision, even if you were not consulted or your idea was rejected.
  • If you are in charge, solicit feedback but strive for a fast decision. Otherwise, you will be considered an indecisive leader.
  • Suggest a vote if there is no leader and the group is stuck. Follow the principle “disagree and commit“.
  • Keep flexible; decisions will be rediscussed and adjusted as necessary (as more information emerges).

5. Trusting

Meyer states there are two forms of trust: cognitive trust (comes from the head, based on knowledge, interactions, and shared experiences; it is the confidence you have in the person’s abilities, skills, and accomplishments) and affective trust (comes from the heart; it refers to feelings of emotional closeness, friendship, empathy; this trust comes from the heart).

This distinction gives the two dimensions of the Trusting scale: Task-based (cognitive trust) and Relationship-based (affective trust).

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 6.1

So how do you build trust in a Task-based culture?

  • First, keep professional and personal lives separate.
  • Second, always show your best self when in the company of business partners.
  • Third, communicate clearly, concisely, and succinctly.
  • Fourth, spend only a little time on non-professional events (e.g. no long lunches).
  • Next, follow through on commitments and report on your accomplishments.
  • Finally, don’t assume a deep conversation indicates a deep relationship.

Here are Meyer’s tips for building affective trust in a Relationship-based culture:

  • Build on common interests. If you don’t have apparent ones, look harder.
  • Personal and professional blend in. Feel free to get personal and share stories about your life in social situations. Be authentic.
  • Join the crowd. When your team is relaxing and letting go, join in.
  • Consider meals carefully: lunch and dinners are how to build a relationship. In addition, sharing meals and drinks (particularly alcoholic drinks in some cultures) is what can get you a new business partner.
  • Use intros to connect with people (if you want them to answer your emails).

6. Disagreeing

As a Romanian who thrives on debates and arguing, not being able to debate is the most challenging part of living in Malaysia.

I learned about “losing face” here. It is similar to feeling humiliated; if you present yourself as a professional or expert in one area and someone challenges you, you “lose face” or experience public shame. The concept is primarily present in Eastern societies (Japan and China lead this dimension) that focus on keeping group harmony versus facts.

Meyer classifies them in the category of Avoid confrontation. The opposite is Confrontational cultures, where you can openly debate and challenge someone’s ideas in public without offending or causing shame to the individual.

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 7.1

If you’re working in a multicultural environment, you must help your team members express their ideas openly and comfortably. Erin Meyer has some strategies for Avoids-conflict cultures:

  • If you’re the boss, don’t join the meeting. Regardless of where your team stands on the disagreeing scale, they might not feel comfortable disagreeing with you openly (be it because of your seniority or your position).
  • Depersonalise disagreement by separating ideas from people (e.g. collect ideas on a board and discuss them without inquiring whose idea it is). Consider also anonymous posting (e.g. an anonymous forum). As a side note, an anonymous collection of ideas is quite against the concept of trust that should be fostered in an agile environment, but consider the cultural dimension before you make a decision here.
  • Conduct meetings before the meeting where you present your idea. Individuals are more likely to express their disagreement in a one-to-one meeting than in a group setting.
  • Adjust your language: avoid upgraders (words that make an opinion sound stronger, such as: “absolutely”, “totally”, “completely“) and employ downgraders (“sort of”, “kind of”, “slightly”, “partially“). But the opposite doesn’t apply: if you’re working in a confrontational culture, use upgraders.
  • When expressing disagreement, change the words based on your cultural context.

In a Confrontational culture:

  • Don’t assume that disagreement with an idea equals disagreement with you. Challenging your ideas doesn’t mean that people don’t respect or appreciate you.

7. Scheduling

For Linear-time countries, a 9:21 meeting means you will be there by 9:21 (usually a little earlier); for Flexible-time cultures, a 9:21 meeting will start anytime between 9:30 and 10:00.

Erin Meyer refers to M-time cultures (monochronic), which see time as tangible and concrete. It can be saved, spent, lost, made up, or running out; and P-time (polychronic) cultures, which take a flexible approach to time, involvement of people, and completion of transactions: appointments are not taken seriously, broken often, they are approximate or general.

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 8.1

Working in global teams creates difficulties when it comes to scheduling. In the words of Erin Meyer:

One culture tells time by when the cows come home. Another schedules meetings based on the Supreme Leader’s moon analysis. A speaker from Minnesota stops speaking the moment the zero card pops up, leaving her Brazilian host baffled about her refusal to satisfy an audience hungry for additional insights.

But there is hope, and there are strategies to learn to work with cultures that see and measure time differently:

  • First, increase your ability to switch to a different work style. Then, learn what works best in that culture and adapt to it.
  • Find the strengths in the cultural differences: how can you learn from the other system and work best with it?

In a multicultural environment, the teams should discuss the time culture they will follow, considering all differences, each team creating a team culture of its own.

8. Persuading

There are two styles of reasoning when it comes to persuading others: principles-first (deductive reasoning) derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts; application-first (inductive reasoning) reaches general conclusions based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world.

The best example here is the well-debated (and meme’d) contrast between the UK – France: the UK works on a “get to the point quickly and stick to it“, while France works mostly on principles and theoretical ground. No wonder these two can never get along!

From Erin Meyer, The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Figure 3.1

Persuading others is at the heart of change (and, indirectly, Agile transformations), so this dimension is essential for coaches. Here’s how you can learn to adapt your persuasive techniques:

  • Application-first thinkers:
    • They like to receive practical examples upfront and extract learning from them.
    • They first read a case study about a theory and extract the general learning from it.
    • Example: as a principle-first thinker presenting to an application-first audience, jump straight to the actions suggested by your findings; don’t spend any time explaining your research methods and no details on how the study was made. Focus your presentation on how your findings can provoke impact and actions you take from them.
  • Principle-first thinkers:
    • Like practical examples, they want to understand the framework’s basis before moving on to the application.
    • Assume that incidences in one situation don’t necessarily apply to other situations.
    • Example: if you’re an application-first thinker (e.g. American), when you give a presentation in this context, don’t jump straight into the conclusion and practical applications of your findings, but spend some time explaining your hypothesis, methodology, and even some details on the research you did (otherwise, they will come up in questions during the presentation).
  • If you’re dealing with both (a mixed audience):
    • Cycle back and forth between theoretical principles and practical examples; start with examples to capture the application-first audience (the principle-first audience will enjoy them also), then address questions on the theoretical background while giving practical examples in your answers.
    • Example: jump straight into the conclusions of your study or research, briefly mention the methodology, focus on the actions to be taken and address other questions relating to methodology.
  • If you have a mixed team, use these strategies to increase team performance:
    • Build team awareness – describe the scale and assess where each person stands.
    • Multicultural team members (from both cultural backgrounds) should take the lead in helping others.
    • Understand and adapt to each other’s behaviour.
    • Agree with the team that patience and flexibility are important to build understanding.

The Asian-Western thought differences.

If you use Erin Meyer’s culture mapping tool, you will notice that countries from Asia don’t have a dimension on the Persuasion scale. The concept of Application-first and Principle-first applies to Western societies only. To discuss West-East cultural differences, she’s looking at specific (West) versus holistic (East) cultures:

  • In a specific culture: you focus on detailed information on what you expect from each person; instructions focus on what each person needs to accomplish them.
  • In a holistic culture, take time to explain the big picture, show how the pieces fit together, and ensure everyone understands what others are working on. Focus on the team goal rather than individual goals and incentives.
  • In multicultural teams: try to create smaller teams that have as few differences as possible (so they don’t need to change the way they work to the extreme); be mindful of your larger objectives (e.g. innovation and creativity can be reached faster with a multicultural team; speed and efficiency are easier to reach with people whose cultural differences are not at opposite ends).

Conclusion

The Culture Map is a lifesaver if you work in a different culture or a multicultural environment. I’ve learned a lot from it, but it could also be a great coaching tool to help teams work better together.

Start by plotting the map of your team members’ nationalities and cultures using the eight cultural dimensions above. Then draw lines connecting all eight points for each of them. Start a conversation of differences and similarities between cultures, building awareness and understanding. Share strategies on dealing with different cultures from this book or make up your own – create your own team culture.

The conversation started by the Culture Map can be very eye-opening. Here are some questions suggested by Meyer:

“• Do you agree with the positions as outlined in this chapter? Why or why not?

• What else can you share with the group so that we better understand your own culture’s positioning on this scale?

• Do you think these concepts are impacting our team’s collaboration?

• What can we do to be more effective, given these differences?”The focus is on the conversation between your team members and mutual understanding rather than agreement with a cultural dimension. People will not identify 100% with the culture they grew up in (as shown in my map below).

Resources

  1. Geert Hofstede’s website
  2. Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions online tool
  3. Erin Meyer’s country mapping tool
  4. A fascinating cultural dimension analysis for some very popular companies (Google, Netflix, Microsoft, Mercedes subjective, but a good read nonetheless)
  5. The Globe Project (research on Hofstede’s “power distance” index)

The Culture Map: personal profile

I am showcasing below my profile versus the countries and companies I’ve been (or will be) working for.

One huge takeaway is that making an assumption about someone’s working style might cause more trouble than help. For example, I don’t fit too well with the Romanian cultural profile, except for two dimensions: Direct Negative Feedback and Persuading. What is important is the conversation around the Culture Map, building awareness and learning.

Romania and I

My profile vs some of the companies I worked for:

Some more examples

World superpowers (top three)

Asian superpowers (except for Russia)

ASEAN

Anglo-Saxons

Scandinavian Peninsula

Germanic Countries (except for the above)

Eastern Europe

European Latin Countries

South America

North America

Arabic Peninsula

African Countries

More African Countries

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