Rocket GTM 🚀 - The Culture Map 🌏 (1/2)
How to navigate the cultural nuances of international teams
🌍 The Culture Map: Global teams, local cultures
Last week I finished reading 'The Culture Map' by Erin Myers (after coming across it in Netflix's No Rules, Rules). As someone who works in a highly international startup with offices across the US, UK, France, and Germany and over 30+ cultures represented, I found this book eye opening and have seen many of the talking points happen in real life.
Invisible boundaries divide our world
Cultural differences are like Invisible boundaries that divide our world and a lack of awareness or understanding of them can create undue friction at work.
Erin Meyer analyzes eight cultural dynamics present in each country and helps us understand how they impact conversations, relationships, trust, leadership and more.
Once we have a better understanding of the way we behave, we can navigate interactions to reduce friction and enhance international collaboration.
The 8 dynamics of international cultures are:
Communicating: high context vs low context
Evaluating: direct vs indirect negative feedback
Persuading: first-principles vs application-first
Leading: egalitarian vs hierarchical
Deciding: top down vs consensus
Trusting: task vs relationship
Disagreeing: confrontational vs non-confrontational
Scheduling: linear vs flexible
Today we'll focus on the first four: communicating, evaluating, persuading, and leading.
Many of these cultural differences—varying attitudes concerning when best to speak or stay quiet, the role of the leader in the room, and what kind of negative feedback is the most constructive—may seem small. But if you are unaware of the differences and unarmed with strategies for managing them effectively, they can derail your team - Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (p. 12).
Culture nuances change perspectives:
There are two types of communication: low context and high context.
Low context means you don't need much context to figure out what's being said. The content is explicit. When someone says 'that's great', it means 'that's great'.
High context means you need greater context to understand the true meaning. High context communication is implicit. What we say is not 100% what we mean.
The US is a low context culture. They are direct. What they say is what they mean.
As a British guy, I've found this most elegantly displayed in American humor. It's often slapstick, direct, and rarely is there an ulterior meaning. There is not much need to look beyond the words being said to understand the joke.
Contrast this to the French or British humor, which is often high context. You need a higher degree of awareness to the context surrounding the joke to understand the true meaning.
In other words - what we say isn't 100% what we mean. The French even have a word for this, it's called the ' 2nd degree'. Sarcasm, wit, or hidden digs are common in French and British humor, which to an American may be lost in translation as just being mean.
I posted this👇on LInkedIn to highlight some funny British phrases which are often misconstrued by non-Brits. They require a higher context to understand.
Another Brit commented on the post with the below chart 👇outlining more nuances.
Have you ever come across these?
When evaluating performance or giving negative feedback there tends to be a scale of direct negative feedback to indirect negative feedback.
With low context communication styles in cultures like that of the US, you'd expect negative feedback to be explicit, however in the US negative feedback is given indirectly or implicitly.
For people used to direct negative feedback cultures like France, Russia, Netherlands, or Germany it can be hard to interpret such feedback. For them, if it doesn't sound that bad, it isn't. The inability to decipher the higher context phrases can lead to misinterpretations and overlook critical feedback that needs to be worked on.
France is a great example of how these two polar opposite communication styles can be confusing. General communication is full of indirect meaning, whereas negative feedback is often straight to the point.
In French culture, there is not much beating around the bush. Your manager will likely tell you what is wrong straight away, and focus on that negative point for most of the conversation.
In France or Germany, negative feedback is not hidden inside a sh*t sandwich (when negative feedback is sandwiched between two compliments to soften the blow).
The dynamic between how cultures handle negative feedback can be destabilizing for everyone involved.
If a French employee was to speak to an American manager about some important negative feedback, that if not resolved may lead to the termination of their employment, the meeting is likely to highlight many of the strong points of the French person's work before going into the area of negative feedback.
The American manager is likely to use 'uppers' for positive points like 'totally' and 'awesome', whereas they'd use 'downers' for pointing out negative feedback like 'kind of not okay' or 'perhaps there's some room for a little improvement'.
How to tell someone they f*cked up:
"When you emailed the customer this proposal it was completely wrong. You didn't outline the pricing clearly, and we may lose the deal because of it."
"I loved the structure of your email, it was very easy to follow and captured all the main points we were looking to include. One part could've done with a little improvement though. The customer may not have understood the pricing. It might be something you want to revisit before our next 1:1"
For a French person, they may interpret their American manager's feedback as highly encouraging. There's a lot more compliments than they're used to, so they must've done some great work! The negative feedback is offered as a suggestion (implicit) and not evident that it must be changed.
Our ability to persuade others doesn't hinge on the strength of our message, but on the way we construct our argument. There are two fundamentally different methods for constructing an argument: application-first or first-principles.
To demonstrate the difference, let's take the example of learning a new language:
first-principles: learn grammar and how to construct a sentence properly, before you actually practice speaking
application-first: speak first by copying others, over time you'll lean the grammatical rules and see how sentences are constructed
The way we learn forms the basis for how we persuade. What sounds convincing to you, may have the opposite effect on your audience.
Looking at the above scale France and the US are on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. French people construct their argument from the ground up with a solid foundation of theory and first-principles thinking. Americans on the other hand, get straight to executing, letting the outcome of their practical work guide their understanding.
If an American tries to convince a German to buy their product with demo's and storytelling of similar customer's experiences, they will likely to fail to convince them to buy because a German wants cold, hard facts first. They want to deeply understand the reasoning behind how your product works and why it's built in that way. They don't want to test it out first and see if it works. They want to be sure of their decision before they pull the trigger. Storytelling is too abstract and distracts from the goal.
An American is likely to 'get to the point' and present their findings first, whereas a German may start with the high-level context, their reasoning and build up to findings at the end.
A German may bore an American by not getting to the point, but an American may insult a German by thinking they will accept any argument without fact checking it first.
The moral is clear. Presenting to Londoners or New Yorkers? Get to the point and stick to it. Presenting to French, Spaniards, or Germans? Spend more time setting the parameters and explaining the background before jumping to your conclusion. - Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (p. 101).
Leadership styles can be divided between egalitarian and hierarchical. The definition of a good leader will change depending on where you fall on this scale.
Egalitarian cultures lean towards having a familiar relationship between all employees regardless of the level of seniority. The boss supports employees to be autonomous rather than directing them with orders from the top down.
The communication between different levels of seniority is not linear in egalitarian environments, meaning you can speak to your bosses boss without any issues.
The difference between egalitarian and hierarchical leadership can be explained by assessing the power distance:
Power distance is defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” The bigger the distance the more you have a top-down leadership role.
In a hierarchical leadership environment the boss is more likely to direct people with what to do rather than empower them to do it themselves.
Subordinates will look to their boss for directions.The boss tends to drive, while the employees are passengers.
It would be frowned upon for an employee to speak to their bosses boss without permission as it's a sign of disrespect to go above their authority.
Denmark - a highly egalitarian leadership style
"In Denmark, it is understood that the managing director is one of the guys, just two small steps up from the janitor. I worked hard to be the type of leader who is a facilitator among equals rather than a director giving orders from a high" - (referring to the egalitarian approach in Denmark) Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (p. 115).
Distribution of authority and empowerment are key pillars to an egalitarian structure.
"Managing Danes, I have learned that the best way to get things done is to push power down in the organization and step out of the way." Ulrich Jepson (Danish manager)- Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (p. 116).
Startups often promote an egalitarian approach to leadership. Symbolized by the t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms wearing CEOs, the absence of a corner office, and the difficulty in telling who the boss is at the after work drinks.
Egalitarian leadership may not be respected by employees in hierarchical cultures
The Danish manager mentioned above was promoted into a senior position where he had to manage a Russian team. As you can see on the chart Russia is highly hierarchical.
So what happened?
Jepson found it difficult to manage his new Russian team and complained that:
They call me Mr. President
They defer to my opinions
They are reluctant to take initiative
They ask for my constant approval
They treat me like I am king
He went on to explain that employees would push problems up the management chain and ask things like "Mr President, please let me know how you'd like me to handle this?".
Jepson was used to pushing autonomy and empowerment down the chain, not the other way around, but this approach was met with negative backlash.
When his team were asked to say what thy thought of Jepson as a leader they said:
He is a weak, ineffective leader
He doesn’t know how to manage
He gave up his corner office on the top floor, suggesting to the company that our team is of no importance
He is incompetent
In an egalitarian culture an aura of authority is more likely to come from acting like one of the team, while in a hierarchical culture, an aura of authority tends to come from setting yourself clearly apart." - Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (p. 122).
The origins of egalitarianism vs hierarchical leadership
Erin goes onto explain that although Europe is often looked at as one block, they are made of very different histories which helps explain why there are distinct groups on the leadership scale.
Mainland Europe has a Roman heritage, which was largely hierarchical. You can see the correlation in countries like France and Italy.
Whereas northern parts of Europe, like Scandinavian countries, have Viking roots. The vikings were known for having an extremely egalitarian power structure whereby disputes were settled through consensus.
In a survey asking "should a leader have all the answers?" The responses highlight this difference:
"55% of Italians said 'yes, leaders should have all the answers', whereas 93% of Swedes said 'no, leaders shouldn't have all the answers'" (paraphrased)- Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (p. 126).
Here's are some more differences between the two styles of leadership:
🔎 Key takeaways
This week we discussed the first four dynamics of cultural nuances across communication, evaluating, persuading, and leadership. We'll cover the remaining four next week, but here are some key takeaways:
Egalitarian leadership styles can give off the impression of weakness in an hierarchical culture
Countries who communicate directly in normal conversation may default to communicating indirectly when giving negative feedback
A persuasive argument in one country could confuse, anger, or even offend someone in another because they construct their arguments differently
High context cultures require us to 'read between the lines' to decipher the true meaning of the communication where as low context cultures say what they mean and mean what they say
Direct feedback cultures are more likely to use 'downers' where as indirect feedback cultures are more likely to use 'uppers'. Misinterpret them at your peril.
Were there any points above that you disagree with? What's your experience working in an international environment?
Shoot me a message on LinkedIn and let's learn from each other!
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