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Questions for Erin Meyer

Interview by Jennifer Anikst

An expert in cross-cultural management describes the importance of subtle behavioural cues.

Erin Meyer is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD. She is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs, 2014).
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Describe some of the ways in which culture impacts business.

A decade ago, the average multinational company might have worked with one foreign culture. But today, a huge percentage of managers have team members from many different countries — so it is imperative that they understand how the various cultures perceive one another, and how to improve collaboration between them.

Whether or not we realize it, small variations in communication patterns can have a tremendous impact on how we understand each other. These subtle differences — such as when to speak or stay quiet, or how to provide feedback — may seem minor, but if you don’t understand them, it can lead to a frustrated workforce.

Here’s an example: in France, people tend to be quite high-context, or implicit, in their communication, whereas Americans are more low-context, or explicit. Conversely, when it comes to giving negative feedback, the French are much more direct than Americans are — which does not follow the traditional stereotypes. In American culture, people are more likely to give three positives with every negative, in order to wrap up positive messages around criticism — which is very un-French. An American manager working with French colleagues should know about this.

In the global economy, an increasingly-important skill is something you call ‘listening to the air’. Please describe it.

I got into the field of cross-cultural management after a powerful experience early in my career. I had travelled to Japan with a Japanese colleague, to give a presentation at a conference. Afterwards, I asked the audience if they had any questions. No one raised their hand, so I sat down. My colleague leaned over and said, “Erin, I think there actually were some questions; do you mind if I try?” Fine. So, he stood up and addressed the group: “Professor Meyer has completed her presentation; do you have any questions?” Again, no one raised their hand, but this time he looked around very carefully: as he studied the silent, motionless participants, he gestured to one individual and asked, “Do you have a question?” The woman said, “Yes. Thank you, I do”. She went on to ask a very important question. Then he did it again.

Afterwards, I needed to know how he did this. After reflecting on it, he said, “It had to do with how bright their eyes were.” Then, he clarified: “In Japan, we don’t make as much direct eye contact as you do in the West. So, when you asked the group if there were any questions, I noticed that although most people were not looking directly at you, there was one person looking right at you, and her eyes were bright — which suggested to me that she would be happy to have you call on her.”

The next day, I gave another presentation, and when I asked for questions afterwards, once again, no one raised their hand — so I decided to try my colleague’s approach. I looked very carefully at the group, and right away I noticed that he was right: most people in the room were not looking at me; but one man was looking directly into my eyes. I gestured to him and he nodded his head, and then he asked an important question.

This experience made me realize the importance of being tuned-in to the extremely subtle cues that people give off. My goal from that point on was to create a framework that helps people decode the way that different cultures perceive one another.

The ‘Culture Map’ you developed measures eight cultural characteristics. Please describe it.

The scales of the Culture Map focus on the eight elements I found to have the strongest impact on cross-cultural business interactions. For instance, one of the ‘big eight’ issues is disagreement. In every culture, if you’re working with teams, you are going to have disagreements at some point. The question is, what is the most appropriate way to express disagreement? In some places, saying something straight out shows transparency and openness; but in others, it can lead to negative fallout.

The other seven areas that demand managers’ attention are communication, leadership, evaluation, decision making, scheduling, persuading and trust. These scales and a brief description of each are shown in Figure One. Once I developed the Culture Map, I was then able to position different countries up and down the scales, so people can get an idea of the issues that might arise between two particular cultures.
      Scales of the Culture Map
Figure One

Describe the role of stereotypes in global collaborations.

When people are preparing for an international collaboration, they often rely on stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is that, while they are not always incorrect, they are very often incomplete. A stereotype provides a single narrative of what a culture is like when, in reality, cultures are complex. The Culture Map helps people tease out these subtle and often complex cultural differences.

For example, whereas the Chinese and Japanese cultures are both very hierarchal on the ‘Leading’ scale, the Japanese are very consensual and the Chinese very top-down on the ‘Deciding’ scale. So, if a Chinese person is working with a Japanese employee, she is likely to rely on the stereotype — ‘They’re hierarchal like we are — and therefore, underestimate the complexity of the situation.

I once worked with a global team that was made up of American, Indian and French people. I asked the Americans what it was like to work with the French, and they said, ‘The French are very chaotic and disorganized. They’re always late, and they’re always changing the topic in meetings, so it’s very difficult to follow them’. I then asked the Indians what it was like to work with the French, and they said, ‘The French are rigid and inadaptable. They’re so focused on the structure and punctuality of things that they’re not able to adapt as a situation changes around them’. This is why, in a globalizing society, it is critical to understand cultural relativity.

Your research has uncovered the importance of ‘authentic flexibility’. Please describe what this looks like.

‘Authentic flexibility’ is the umbrella term for the skills necessary to be productive in a multicultural world: you need to be constantly curious, humble, and improve your ability to see things from different perspectives. The most effective global leaders have one foot that is quite securely rooted in their home culture, but they are constantly learning to get things done in new and different ways.

You need to be constantly curious, humble, and improve your ability to see things from different perspectives.Tweet this

To be effective internationally, you must constantly be aware of adjusting the scales of the Culture Map in order to motivate employees in different countries, negotiate the best deals, and make sure suppliers deliver on time. This requires continual adaptation and reinforcement.

In today’s environment, people interact more and more via technology, and less and less in person. As a result, will cultural differences impact us less over time?

Many people believe that as virtual communication increases, cultural differences will become less important—but in fact, the exact opposite is true. For example, in North America, at the end of a conference call, it is common to first give a verbal overview of what has been decided upon and then provide written confirmation of the conversation via email. You need to be constantly curious, humble, and improve your ability to see things from different perspectives. I worked with a manager from India a while ago, and he said to me, “Erin, in my culture, if we talk on the telephone and make decisions verbally, that is enough for us; if you then get off the phone and put into writing everything that was just decided upon, it sends a signal that you don’t trust the other people.” This was obviously unintended — but potentially detrimental — and it could have gone unnoticed by me, had my colleague not alerted me.
  The Leadership Scale

Can you provide an example of a business that has benefited from the Culture Map?

We worked with Heineken, the Dutch brewing company. For a long time, one in five of its employees was Dutch. But several years ago, it purchased an operation in Monterey, Mexico — and suddenly, one in five employees was Mexican.

The Netherlands is an extremely egalitarian culture. Children are taught from a young age that teachers are facilitators, and that they should feel free to challenge those in positions of authority. Mexico, on the other hand, is hierarchical: people give much more respect and deference to people in charge. So with Heineken, there were Mexican managers who were now managing in the Netherlands. They said to me, ‘Managing Dutch people is frustrating: they don’t care at all that I’m the boss. People always contradict and challenge me’.

The fact is, in a rapidly globalizing world, it’s not enough to know how to manage the Dutch way or the Mexican way — or the American or Chinese way: managers just be flexible enough to adapt their style to the local population in order to get the desired results. 

This article originally appeared in The Global Mindset Issue (Spring 2016).