There’s a general line in management as follows: ‘People are people. While there are some cultural differences, there are many more similarities. That’s what you should focus on’. I disagree. There are ‘tricks of the trade’ in managing multi-cultural groups which are critically important (whether you are managing across a number of geographies or have people from different countries under 1 roof). Let’s see if you are convinced by the following examples:
Japanese Actors: When I lived in Singapore we worked across all of Asia. At that time the fastest growing service in Japan was using actors to visit your parents. This is how it worked. Japanese executives work long hours. Many tack a long commute onto the end of a busy day and end up with very little time for family and social affairs. To overcome this, successful executives would hire an actor/actress to visit their elderly parents. Sometimes this person would even spend the weekend with the parents who’d parade the actor around the local village. Neighbours would know that it was not the actual son or the daughter. But their take on this was that the executive was both ‘thoughtful’ and ‘successful’ in being able to afford this. Can you see this developing as a key idea in Donegal? No, me neither. Let’s try another one.
Going Dutch: Since the Middle Ages, when landowners and farmers had to work together literally to keep their feet dry, Dutch people have had to develop a mentality of cooperation (hence the emergence of the notion of ‘Going Dutch’). Because of this unique history, the Dutch typically have low social distance. In the Dutch culture this replaces the more typical struggle between the social classes. The impact = staff have a much higher expectation of being involved in decisions which affect them in the workplace. If you are managing a Dutch group you can expect active feedback and tons of ‘interaction’ about your management style. Many non-Dutch people experience this as subordinates being outspoken and overly-direct – but this is simply the way people in Holland interact with each other and with everyone else. Get used to it. Still think people are ‘all the same’? The next one is my favourite.
Malaysian Toilets: I was touring a pharmaceutical factory just outside Kuala Lumpur. On factory visits I always look at the restrooms (normally good data there about how the company view staff and about how the staff view the company – in terms of the way the facilities are kept). I know, I know. How do I get to do such a glamorous job? In this particular factory none of the cubicles (having checked all 8) had toilet paper and I asked the HR Director, Nik Mustaffa, to explain. It was simple. The toilet paper kept getting stolen. The company tried a range of different toilet roll formats, but nothing worked. It kept going missing. Eventually they gave up and removed the toilet paper altogether. So I asked, somewhat tentatively:
“What do people do when they need to use the toilet?”
He replied: “I see, I see. You need to use the toilet right now?”
“No, no, I’m grand. I’m just wondering what do people do when they need to go?”
“Oh, that’s easy. They just ask the Secretary in each department for the number of ‘sheets’ they will use and she gives it to them”.
Jesus! I don’t think even Colm McCarthy and the An Bord Snip Nua board would have come up with that one. We’d have to re-negotiate the Haddington Road agreement. The Labour Court would be on overtime. Now, while I’m all for forward planning – figuring out the exact number of sheets might be difficult – arguably ‘more arse than science’.
Do Your Homework: Still buy the line that ‘people are people’ and there are no cultural differences that matter? The next time you hear someone pontificating that managing people is the same skill the world over, hit the pause button. The reality is that you need to clue yourself in on the local culture and make sure you understand how it works. Otherwise, you won’t even get your team into 3rd gear (and you won’t have a clue about what you’re doing wrong).
Forget the phrase book. Get a cultural guide. Safe travels.
PS: I Love You (reading these blogs). Come to think of it, that would make a great title for a book! I’m surprised no-one has thought of that before now.
Lighter Note… “America is the only country where a significant proportion of the population believes that professional wrestling is real but the moon landing was faked”. David Letterman
Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me email@example.com and we’ll add them to the mailing list.