Category Archives: Cultural

How to Master Intercultural Communication

Interacting with people from other cultures can be fascinating. Whether you are abroad or on home turf, you are often exposed to new and fascinating ways of doing things. If you are about to take a trip to another country, it is a good idea to brush up on the culture and traditions in advance of your departure. This can be instrumental in avoiding potential miscommunication. If you are dealing with people from many cultures on a routine basis, some fundamental information about value systems and how people relate in certain parts of the world can be invaluable. It will help you know how to interact in an appropriate way. Concentrating on five basic categories will give you a running start when interacting with individuals from other cultures.

INDIVIDUALISTIC and COLLECTIVISTIC CULTURES

Individualistic Cultures foster individualism and focus on individual goals.
There is a preference for ‘equal’ relationships, and behavior cannot be predicted from group memberships. Representative Cultures: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States.

Collectivistic Cultures focus on group goals. There is strong emphasis on traditions and conformity. Representative Cultures: Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Guatemala, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

MASCULINE and FEMININE CULTURES

Masculine Cultures have differentiated gender roles and are characterized by power, assertiveness and performance. Representative Cultures: Arab cultures, Austria, Germany, Italy,Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland and Venezuela.

Feminine Cultures value quality of life and service. Sex roles are androgynous. Feminine cultures have overlapping gender roles. Representative Cultures: Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, East African cultures, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Thailand.

LOW and HIGH POWER DISTANCE CULTURES

With Low Power Distance Cultures, individuals are viewed as equals. Emphasis is placed on legitimate power. Superiors and subordinates are interdependent. Representative Cultures: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States.

With High Power Distance Cultures, individuals are seen as unequal. Subordinates
are dependent on those above them. Representative Cultures: Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Panama, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

LOW and HIGH UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE CULTURES

Low Uncertainty Avoidance Cultures are characterized by low stress and anxiety. Dissent is acceptable. There is a high level of risk taking. Uncertainty is OK. Representative Cultures: Canada, Denmark, England, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, Sweden and the United States.

High Uncertainty Avoidance Cultures are characterized by high stress and anxiety. There is a strong desire for agreement. People do not like to take risks. Representative Cultures: Egypt, Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Greece, Japan and Mexico.

LOW CONTEXT and HIGH CONTEXT COMMUNICATION

High Content/Low Context Messages are direct and clear with most of the message explicit in the code. This form predominates in individualistic cultures.

High Context/Low Content Messages are indirect and ambiguous. Most of the information is internalized in the person or his surroundings. This form is found more typically in collectivistic cultures.

Be aware of cultural differences and how they should impact your communication. When you’re not sure how to proceed, be respectful. That goes a long way in successfully establishing relationships.

Does Your Culture Support or Sabotage Your Strategy?

“An organization’s capacity to execute its strategy depends on its “hard” infrastructure–its organization structure and systems–and on its “soft” infrastructure–its culture and norms.”

Amar Bhide

(Harvard and Columbia)

Is your organisation one which invests a considerable amount of time and effort (and, therefore, cost) in looking to the future and creating a strategy and strategic plan? I hope so! However, what happens if the plan is not successful and the objectives not achieved? Is the blame put on to the market, the competition, the planners, the staff, or even the plan? The problem may be something more fundamental – the culture is not right for the strategic direction!

There are a number of variations about what is a strategy and what is involved in identifying and creating a strategy. The definition below is one which covers most of the key elements.

“An effective strategy is an integrated array of distinctive choices about which markets a company serves, what unique value proposition it offers to the customers, and how it arranges its functions to deliver that value.” Prof Jan Rivkin

In creating a strategic intent, Michael Porter suggests asking 3 questions:

What is the business doing?

What is happening in the environment?

What should the business be doing?

For many years, when working with organisations in various sectors on creating their strategic plan we found that people approached the process with good intentions and wanted to be thorough and professional. The tools and techniques are generally well-known and are applied with varying degrees of effectiveness. Many managers know about the 7S’s, SWOT and PEST and suchlike. (How well they use them is another matter!) The better organisations have customer feedback data and may carry out some market research. Their analysis of the external environment is based on good information plus knowledge and experience. However, when they come to analysing the internal environment, they may not have such a clear understanding even presupposing they carry out the Strengths and Weaknesses thoroughly.

Combine running the day to day business with looking to the future and leading the people and the organisation and today’s executives and managers have plenty to deal with. Is it any wonder that they do not consider the culture of the organisation? Anyway, surely the culture is what it is, we cannot do anything about it can we? Not strictly true.

Corporate culture happens – the only doubt is if it is the culture you want to have (or be part of.) What is the culture of an organisation – or the corporate culture? The simple statement (probably first used at McKinsey) saying, “the way we do things round here” is a good start point. A more wordy definition is “the moral, social, behavioural norms of an organization based on the beliefs, attitudes and priorities of its members.” This does provide for a better understanding of where cultures start to emerge. Corporate cultures evolve from a number of factors:

  • The top management and how they behave and operate
  • The history and traditions within the organisation
  • Strong groups within the organisation
  • The policies and practices – including rewards, recognition and promotion

Whether the present culture has been created by accident or design, it is what you have and is the platform from which the business will continue to operate. Before you can set out on the new strategic plan you need to know whether the culture and strategy are aligned. If they are, you have a chance of success. If not, ……..?

A close fit between the culture and the strategy will increase your chances of success. Where the culture encourages the right behaviours and actions to support the strategy, the people will have clear guidelines and kpi’s about what is good performance. If the culture has clear values, beliefs and behaviours which link to the vision, objectives and strategy – people will feel (and be) aligned and deliver more.

Where your culture does not fit with the strategy implementation, and required behaviours, you send mixed signals. People are in conflict. Should they be loyal to the culture and company traditions and resist actions and behaviours promoting better strategy execution? Or should they support the strategy by engaging in behaviours that run counter to the culture?

When a company’s culture is not right with what is needed for strategic success, the culture has to be changed as rapidly as can be managed!

How can you decide what your culture is – and whether it will fit the strategic plan?

There are a number of ways of looking at corporate culture. There are some which assess the styles of the top leaders and can define the culture based on their behaviours. There are tools such as the Hofstead Cultural Orientation model, which look at various paired factors each on a continuum. The Johnson and Scholes Cultural web offers a more anecdotal and subjective view using 6 inter-related elements. The one we have used with a number of organisations is the Denison Organisational Cultural model. This tool has been around for over 16 years and benchmarked across over 1,600 organisations. It provides a more objective view of organisations into 4 areas, based on axes which consider External – Internal focus, Stable – Flexible

Involvement

commitment – ownership – responsibility

Are our people aligned and engaged?

Adaptability

patterns – trends – marketplace

Are we listening to the market?

Mission

direction – purpose – blueprint

Do we know where we are going?

Consistency

systems – structures – processes

Do our systems create leverage?

The Denison Organisational Culture Survey has 60 items that measure specific aspects of an organisation’s culture in each of these four traits and twelve management practices identified in Dr. Dan Denison’s research. Individual surveys are collectively tabulated into a graphic profile that compares your organisation’s culture to that of higher and lower-performing organisations. The results are presented in a typical circumplex with reports being produced in bar charts.

One of the main strengths of this tool as that it provides a snapshot of the organisation’s strength and weaknesses. For example, when we used it with an organisation which was the result of a merger of two companies we could see that there were low scores in the “involvement” area which told us that staff morale was low and they needed attention quickly if the good people were not going to leave! Also, the “consistency” result was low – which meant that the systems were likely to lead to customer and service problems which was one area they wanted to compete on! This had the potential to sabotage their strategy! We created “action teams” to look at the detailed reports on each trait to address the major issues highlighted in these areas. Within 6 months they could see (and measure) significant improvements in these. Another client had a new strategy which involved re-positioning their business and becoming a lot more proactive in their market and towards their existing clients. The Denison results showed that they were low on the “adaptability” trait – and this is currently being addressed.

Another plus which Denison offers is that you can judge your culture against high performing companies and see how well you compare.

There are many examples of organisations recognising the need to do improve their culture, driving this from the top and then seeing the benefits in their bottom-line.

The characteristics of organisations with a strong corporate culture will include most of the following:

  • A clearly defined and communicated vision and mission
  • Clearly stated values which underpin the behaviours throughout the organisation
  • A clear indication of the behaviours to be followed by EVERYONE in the organisation from the boardroom down
  • The top management work at creating and keeping the desired culture

To ensure that the corporate culture supports your strategy it might pay dividends to carry out an assessment before you commit too much time and effort to the strategic planning process. Changing the culture is not necessarily easy, or even a quick task – but it can be done. Your strategy needs solid foundations to build upon, make sure that the culture is strong and that you align the strategic intent and plan with it. You will achieve the business success you want, create and even stronger culture and develop the corporate resilience to succeed even more.