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 8 nationalities (of 8 team members), spread across all spectrum 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. It had its blunders (like when I offended a Malaysian colleagues with some very direct feedback), but slowly we learned about each other’s differences and moved towards understanding.
Two main sources of learning and inspiration helped: Geert Hofstede six cultural dimensions and Erin Meyer‘s The Culture Map. Decoding HowPeople Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, the book accompanied by an awesome online tool.
As Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are quite 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 a lot of examples.
Erin Meyer Culture Map
Meyer’s model contains eight scales, where each scale represents a key area, showing how cultures vary along the spectrum from one extreme to the other.
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:
In order to navigate culture differences in term of communication, you have to adapt between different communication styles, 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-intention 🙂
- Working with people from low-context cultures:
- Be as transparent, clear, and specific as possible.
- Don’t read between the lines, but state clear what you don’t understand and ask for clarification if needed.
- At the end of the discussion, recap what was agreed on, to make sure you have the same understanding.
- Don’t be extremely polite, ask as many questions as you need to understand the context.
“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 and look into what comes next. One of my teams had a meeting scheduled right during that period of time. The “considerate” me noticed and decided to let everyone know that we can’t use that time for a different meeting, as everyone has to be present at the company-wide one. I figured telling the entire team, and not the person who set the meeting, would not put the person on the spot and make her feel bad.
Fast forward three months after, at our performance review, and two team members from that team told me I offended them (one of them was so upset she cried), as they are always respecting the company-wide meeting and they are the ones who always remind everyone else about it. I had absolutely no clue about it until I received the (written) feedback. I used the opportunity to talk to my colleagues, understand our different feedback styles (we are almost at the opposite end of the spectrum), and learn about each other.
According to Meyer, the opposite sides of the feedback dimensions are direct and indirect negative feedback.
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:
Low-context and direct negative feedback (quadrant A)
Don’t try to do it like them (e.g. 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 very direct, low-context approach).
High-context and direct negative feedback (quadrant B)
If you work with a person from a high-context and direct negative feedback (like Russia), you have to make an effort to increase their awareness and the awareness of the team on the cultural differences, in order to increase collaboration. They might not know the impact of their feedback on others.
Example: if you are unhappy with the IT in a company, don’t straight tell them they are incompetent, nor raise your voice when talking to them. Make sure you can express your request calmly and politely. Maybe 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. Discuss your cultural differences and about the impact the feedback has 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, 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 US, getting feedback is embarrassing (even if it’s positive!).
- Blur the message, especially when working with people from many Asian cultures. Direct message might offend and make people “lose face” (a term I found about here, in Asia).
- Give feedback slowly, over a period of time, so that 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 papers, mentioning that the first two were really good; this way it was indirectly implied that the last two were not that good (it takes Jedi powers to master these skills; or just be from India).
One thing I did – working in Malaysia, which is. on the opposite spectrum when it comes to negative feedback, as to send my feedback request accompanied by a short request to keep it direct (no need to “spare my feelings“). I could make the best of the feedback this way (and was told by colleagues from a different culture that this helped them give better feedback).
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). The data was calibrated by Professor Robert House in the Globe Project.
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? 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?
Based on the results, there are cultures with low power distance – egalitarian in Meyer’s framework, with fewer inequalities between individuals and less hierarchy, and high power distance – hierarchical, with higher inequality and hierarchical relationships (every person has its place, people expect to be told what to do, and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat).
Find below a more detailed explanation of egalitarian vs hierachical, as presented by Erin Meyer in The Culture Map:
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 own 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. No need to talk to the boss.
- Think twice before copying the boss; it might send the message you don’t trust the recipient or you want to control her.
- Easily skip hierarchical levels.
- Use first name when writing emails (check the cultural norms first, some egalitarian cultures don’t find this acceptable).
The Deciding dimensions looks at how people make decisions: through consensus – Consensual, or individually, following hierarchy – Top-down. Most Egalitarian societies have a consensual decision making process; there are some outliers: US is Egalitarian but leans towards Top-down decision making; Germany is more Hierarchical but has a Consensual approach to decision making, and Japan, which is Hierarchical, but ultra-consensual (it’s the extreme of Consensual decision making on the spectrum).
There is no right or wrong here: consensual decision making or top-down are as effective (if the decision is effective). The issues arise in multi-cultural 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, it will involve more conversations (online or offline).
- Be patient and committed to the group decision, even if you don’t participate in the decision making.
- Be available for questions and sharing opinion if asked.
- Check in with your closer colleagues to find out where the group is in their decision-making (or you might be left out of the loop).
- Don’t push 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 less discussions, 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.
- If there is no leader and the group is stuck, suggest a vote. Follow the principle “disagree and commit“.
- Keep flexible; decisions will be rediscussed, adjusted, changed as necessary (as more information emerges).
Meyer states there are two forms of trust: cognitive trust (the confidence you have into the person’s abilities, skills, accomplishments; this trust comes from the head, based on interactions and experiences together) and affective trust (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).
So how do you build trusts in a Task-based culture?
- Keep professional and personal lives separate.
- Show your best version at all time when in the company of business partners.
- Communicate clearly, concisely, and succinctly.
- Don’t spend too much time on non-professional events (e.g. no long lunches).
- Follow through on commitments and report on your accomplishments.
- Don’t assume a deep conversation is indicative of 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. In social situations, don’t be afraid to get personal and share stories about your life. Be authentic.
- Join the crowd. When your team is relaxing and letting go, join in.
- Consider meals carefully: lunch and dinners are the way to build the relationship. Sharing meals and drinks (particularly alcoholic drinks in some cultures) is what can get you a new business partner.
- Use intros to get connected with people (if you want them to answer your emails).
As a Romanian who thrives on debates and arguing, not being able to debate is probably the hardest part of living in Malaysia (that, humidity, and a car-culture).
It’s here I learned about “losing face“, which is pretty 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. These societies – mostly Eastern ones (Japan, China lead this dimension) focus on keeping group harmony versus getting your facts right. Meyer classifies them in the category Avoid confrontation, while the opposite is Confrontational, cultures where you can have an open debate and challenge someone’s ideas in public without offending or causing shame to the individual.
If you’re working in a multi-cultural environment, you will have to help your team members express their ideas openly and comfortably. Erin Meyer has some strategies to help 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 to disagree with you openly (be it because 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, anonymous collection of ideas is quite against the concept of trust that should be fostered in an agile environments, 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“). The opposite doesn’t apply: if you’re working in a confrontational culture, use upgraders.
- When expressing disagreement, change the words based on the cultural context you’re working in.
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.
I was told that I am German when it comes to time management. For Linear-time countries, a 9:21 meeting means you will be there by 9:21 (most of the time 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), that see time as tangible and concrete, it can be saved, spent, lost, made up, running out; and P-time (polychronic) cultures, that 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.
Working internationally 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 own abilities to switch to a different style of working. 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.
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 UK – France: UK works on a “get to the point quick and stick to it“, while France works mostly on principles and theoretical ground. No wonder these two can never get along!
Persuading others is at the heart of change (and, indirectly, Agile transformations), so I find this dimension to be essential for coaches. Here’s how you can learn to adapt your persuasive techniques:
- Application-first thinkers:
- Like to receive practical examples upfront and they extract learning from these examples.
- 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 it.
- Principle-first thinkers:
- Like practical examples, but they want to understand the basis of the framework before they move on to application.
- Assume that incidences in one situation don’t necessarily apply to other situation.
- 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, 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 to practical examples; start with practical 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, mention briefly the methodology, focus back 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 lead of helping the 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. In order 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 in particular; 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, make sure 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 little 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).
The Culture Map is a life saver if you work in a different culture of your own or in a multicultural environment. I’ve learned a lot from it, personally, but I discovered it can also be a great coaching tool to help teams work better together.
Start by plotting the map of your team members’ nationalities 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 how to deal with different cultures, from this book or make up your own, – build 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, not agreement with a cultural dimension. People will not identify 100% with the culture they grew up in (as you will see from my personal map below).
The Culture Map: personal profile
I am showcasing below my profile versus my country different companies I’ve been (or will be) working for.
One huge takeaway is that making 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:
- Geert Hofstede’s website
- Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions online tool
- Erin Meyer’s country mapping tool
- An interesting cultural dimension analysis for some very popular companies (Google, Netflix, Microsoft, Mercedes subjective, but good read nonetheless)
- The Globe Project (research on Hofstede’s “power distance” index)
Some more examples
World super powers (top three)
Asian Super Powers (except for Russia)
Germanic Countries (except for the above)
European Latin Countries
More African Countries