The 8 keys for managing multicultural teams by Erin Meyer

As our economy becomes more globalised and large corporations have more operations in multiple countries, one may be tempted to believe that local cultures play less and less of a role. After all, everybody speaks Globish-English and wants the same things, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact being able to understand and work with people from different cultures is becoming an increasingly critical business (and life) skill. And in spite of globalisation, local cultures remain stubbornly divergent and elusive.

It’s time we learnt to navigate across cultures! Erin Meyer’s Culture Map (2016) provides the most enlightening and effective guide to help us learn to do that. Meyer’s map is a field-tested model for decoding how cultural differences impact business and communication. Her framework addresses 8 different criteria that can help a Brazilian manager establish trust with her Chinese employee, a French businessman negotiate with his Russian supplier, and a German executive convince his American counterparts.

“When you are in and of a culture—as fish are in and of water—it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture. Often people who have spent their lives living in one culture see only regional and individual differences and therefore conclude, ‘My national culture does not have a clear character’.” 

– Erin Meyer in The Culture Map.

Erin Meyer is a professor at INSEAD whose work focuses on cross-cultural communication. She regularly helps managers get ready to lead a multi-cultural team or relocate to a country with a different culture. Her book’s “eight scales that map the world’s cultures” are undoubtedly an amazing introduction to start “getting things done across cultures”.

“If you go into every interaction assuming that culture doesn’t matter, your default mechanism will be to view others through your own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge them accordingly.” 

– Erin Meyer in The Culture Map.

1. Communication: low-context vs high-context cultures 

In some cultures, notably in Germany and in the USA, people tend to communicate as literally as possible. “Accountability for accurate transmission of the message is placed firmly on the communicator: ‘If you don’t understand, it’s my fault’”. These cultures are known as “low-context” where effective communication is simple, clear and explicit. As explained by Meyer, “the United States is the lowest-context culture in the world, followed by Canada and Australia, the Netherlands and Germany.” The US may be particularly low-context because the country had to incorporate many different cultures in relatively little time: adopting the lowest communication denominator (explicitness) was more convenient. 

By contrast, many Asian cultures (the Japanese, in particular) value communication styles where context plays a bigger role. Messages are conveyed implicitely and people are supposed to read between the lines. In Japan, they even have an expression for people who are good at understanding the context: to “read the air”. “Good communication is subtle, layered, and may depend on copious subtext, with responsibility for transmission of the message shared between the one sending the message and the one receiving it.”

In Japan, they have an expression for people who are good at understanding the context: to “read the air”.

The French culture is more high-context than the American and the German one—French managers must try to be more explicit when they communicate with Americans or Germans—but less than the Japanese—French people can’t “read the air” with their Japanese counterparts. Indeed when it comes to cultural scales, what matters is always the relative position of your culture with the other cultures you want to work with.

If you’re from a lower-context culture than the person you want to communicate with, you might find them secretive, “lacking transparency, or unable to communicate effectively.” If you’re from a higher-context culture, you may find that your low-context counterparts state the obvious or sound patronizing. In multicultural teams, the default communication mode must be low-context: state everything explicitly and in writing to reduce confusion

2. Evaluation: direct negative feedback vs indirect negative feedback

A lot of Europeans know that the Americans tend to find everything “great” or “awesome” whereas in France, for example, “not too bad” might mean “amazing”. The way we evaluate things depends a lot on culture. When it comes to evaluating professional performance, in some cultures you may be very direct whereas in others, you may not. “Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns to never criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.”

In more direct cultures, people have a tendency to upgrade their feedback by adding adverbs like “totally”, “absolutely” (“this is totally unprofessional”). By contrast more indirect cultures prefer to use downgraders to soften their criticism: a bit, sort of, slightly… Or like the British they may be masters in the art of understatements: “we are not quite there yet”. People from other cultures need a translation guide to understand what these understatement masters really mean.

British may be masters in the art of understatements: “we are not quite there yet”. People from other cultures need a translation guide to understand what these understatement masters really mean.

Most European cultures give direct negative feedback: people from Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, France, or Denmark provide frank, often blunt feedback. Their negative messages can stand alone. People from most Asian cultures provide indirect negative feedback, in particular the Japanese, the Thai, or the Korean. Americans, Canadians and Mexicans fall in the middle. Their feedback is provided more softly and diplomatically than it would be in northern Europe. They use positive messages to wrap negative ones.

There’s one rule for working with cultures that are more direct than yours on the Evaluating scale: Don’t try to be like them. Even in the countries farthest to the direct side of the Evaluating scale, it is still quite possible to be too direct”. As for people from more direct cultures working with people from indirect cultures: learn to be more positive and soften your feedback. When in doubt, it is safe to be more diplomatic, and to avoid giving feedback to someone in front of a group.

3. Persuasion: principles-first vs applications-first

“Though most people are unaware of it, the ways you seek to persuade others and the kinds of arguments you find persuasive are deeply rooted in your culture’s philosophical, religious, and educational assumptions and attitudes. Far from being universal, then, the art of persuasion is one that is profoundly culture-based”

Erin Meyer

Principles-first (deductive) reasoning goes from theory to fact, from general concepts to illustrations, whereas applications-first (inductive) reasoning begins with facts and real-world stories to draw broader conclusions. Most people will use a mix of theory and stories to persuade others. But depending on your culture and the education you received, the way you make a case will differ widely.

The French art of intellectual persuasion, like the German, was shaped deeply by the dialectical method (thèse, antithèse, synthèse), a structure of argumentation where the first idea is followed by a second idea that negates the first, and the conflict between the first two is resolved by the third. The French and the Germans both like to start with rules and theories to make their case, unlike Americans who prefer to start with examples and stories, and focus on what theories mean in concrete terms for real people

In short, applications-first cultures focus on the how and the what whereas principles-first cultures focus on the why. French people, for example, often want to understand why they are asked to do something. “One of the most common frustrations among French employees with American bosses is that the American tells them what to do without explaining why they need to do it. From the French perspective, this can feel demotivating, even disrespectful. By contrast, American bosses may feel that French workers are uncooperative because, instead of acting quickly, they always ask “Why?” and are not ready to act until they have received a suitable response”

When you’re principles-first, write shorter emails and focus on actionable items when you want to persuade your applications-first counterparts. Conversely, if you come from an applications-first culture, provide more theory and context and explain why you believe something must be done.

4. Leadership: hierarchical vs egalitarian

In egalitarian cultures like Denmark, Sweden, or the Netherlands, “the ideal distance between a boss and a subordinate is low.” Bosses are facilitators among equals. Corporate structures are quite flat and communication can skip regular hierarchical lines. “The belief that individuals should be equal and that individual achievement should be downplayed has been a part of Scandinavian society for centuries”, writes Meyer.

In hierarchical cultures, like Japan, India, China or Nigeria, by contrast, “the ideal distance between a boss and a subordinate is high”. Status matters enormously and communication can only follow hierarchical lines. Again, what matters is the relative position of two cultures on the hierarchical vs egalitarian scale. The UK is more egalitarian than France, but less than Australia, for example.

Why have different European cultures such different identities when it comes to “the role of the boss”? Meyer suggests Roman Empire which swept across southern Europe may have played a big role in shaping different cultures

Why have different European cultures such different identities when it comes to “the role of the boss”? Meyer suggests the Roman Empire which swept across southern Europe may have played a big role in shaping different cultures. “The Romans built hierarchical social and political structures and heavily centralized systems for managing their vast empire. The boundaries between the different classes were strict and legally enforced. Members of different classes even dressed differently”. So the countries most influenced by the Empire developed a different culture when it comes to hierarchy and organisation. Unlike the peoples dominated by the Roman Empire, the Vikings were surprisingly egalitarian.

Religion also played a part in shaping that cultural aspect. “Confucius was mainly interested in how to bring societal order and harmony. He believed that mankind would be in harmony with the universe if everyone understood their rank in society and observed the behaviors proper to that rank”. Cultures with a Confucian heritage have a more paternalistic definition of leadership to this day.

If you work with somebody from a more hierachical society than your own, it is critical to communicate only with somebody at your hierarchical level, to copy the boss when you email somebody lower down the ladder, to address people by their last names. Conversely, if you work with somebody from a more egalitarian society, you should go directly to the source, not copy the boss on every piece of communication, and use first names. With a global team composed of different cultures, it is important to define team protocols at the beginning, explain clearly what’s expected (when a boss should be CCed, for example).

5. Decision: top-down vs consensual

In consensual cultures, decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement. In top-down cultures, decisions are made by individuals (the boss). Surprisingly, hierarchical cultures can also be consensual. And more egalitarian cultures can also be “top-down” when it comes to decision-making. Japan, for example, is on the “hierarchical” side of the scale, but decisions are made in a very consensual way: “both hierarchical systems and consensual decision making are deeply rooted in Japanese culture”. In Japan’s ringi system of decision making, low-level managers discuss a new idea among themselves and come to a consensus before presenting it to managers one level higher. It is particularly common in large corporations.

Consensual decisions take much longer to reach, but are generally also harder to change. When a consensual decision is finally reached, people are ready for implementation and have thought of everything. By contrast, top-down decisions can be quicker, but they are also less solid. They can be changed easily, and because nobody knows about it yet, nobody is ready for its consequences. Therefore implementation takes longer. 

Both consensual and top-down decision-making processes can be effective.But adjusting from one culture to another can be quite difficult for the people involved. People from a top-down culture must learn to be patient when their “consensual” counterparts need to reach a decision. And people from a “consensual” culture need to learn that decisions reached by their “top-down” partners are not as final as they might think.

6. Trust: the head vs the heart

Meyer explains there are two forms of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust. Cognitive trust relies on the confidence you have in a person’s skills and reliability, whereas affective trust comes from feelings of emotional closeness (even friendship). Therefore trust tends to be more “task-based” in some work cultures (built primarily through business-related activities) whereas in others it is more “relationship-based” (built primarily through sharing meals, drinks and spending quality time with someone). 

On the Trusting scale, the US, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are more on the “task-based” end, while Mexico, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and China are more on the relationship-based end. France, for example, is somewhere in between, but quite to the right of the most task-based trust building cultures. French people value relationships at work, and to be able to trust someone, they have to have had lunch with them. “In China, business relationships are personal relationships. The loyalty is to the individual and not the company. If someone leaves the company, the personal relationship would be much stronger than the severance between that person and the organization,” Meyer explains. 

On the Trusting scale, the US, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are more on the “task-based” end, while Mexico, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and China are more on the relationship-based end.

People who are on the “task-based” end of the scale need to learn to build relationships with their more “relationship-based” counterparts. Chatting or having lunch is not a waste of time! For people on the “relationship-based” end, it might be quite difficult to realise that trust can be built with their counterparts through work-based activities only, but it can!

7. Disagreement: confrontational vs non-confrontational

In “confrontational” cultures, disagreement and debate are seen as positive for the team. Open confrontation is appropriate. By contrast, in non-confrontational cultures, disagreement and open confrontations are seen as damaging for the team because it breaks group harmony. In France, Germany, Israel, Russia and the Netherlands, it is common to disagree openly with a colleage or partner. Not so in Japan, Indonesia or Thailand! The US, the UK and Brazil are in the middle of the scale.

When working with a culture that is more confrontational than your own, it is important not to try and mimic that culture.

When working with a culture that is more confrontational than your own, it is important not to try and mimic that culture. In every culture there’s such a thing as being too confrontational. You may not understand the subtleties of open debates. Conversely when you have to work with somebody from a culture that is more confrontational than your own, understand that they do not see disagreements as something that affects the relationship. You are safer than you think!

8. Scheduling: linear time vs flexible time

What does it mean to be late or to be on time? Depending on your culture, it may mean different things. Our perception of time is rooted in culture. On the scheduling scale, Switzerland, Germany and Japan fall on the “linear-side” end. They approach projects in a sequential mode: they complete one task before beginning the nest, don’t like to be interrupted, and tend to stick to deadlines. Kenya, India, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, by contrast, view time more “flexibly”: “projects are approached in a fluid manner. Many things are dealt with at once and interruptions accepted. The focus is on adaptability.”

To understand these cultural differences, there are historical and economic factors to take into account. “To this day, the perception of time in Germany is partially rooted in the early impact of the industrial revolution, where factory work required the labor force to be on hand and in place at a precisely appointed moment.” But in more agrarian societies, time is not fixed by clocks to run assembly lines: you have to adapt to changes in the natural environment, adapt to the weather. You need to be flexible to be able to react to quick changes.

When it comes to scheduling, it is fairly easy to adjust to a culture different than your own. All it takes is knowledge and planning. Coming too late to a meeting in Germany, Switzerland or Sweden may jeopardise your relationship because it may be seen as rude and disrespectful. Conversely, if you know that Indians and Nigerians view time more flexibly, you need not feel offended when somebody is late at a meeting. 

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