Know Your Culture

In the 1980s, Geert Hofstede surveyed thousands of employees in over 40 countries, and determined that national culture explains over 50% of the differences in the behavior and attitudes of employees. Moreover, Hofstede proposed four value-oriented dimensions that differentiate national cultures: (1) power distance, (2) individualism, (3) uncertainty avoidance, and (4) masculinity. Each of these values can be considered as continuous variables; a culture can fall anywhere between the two descriptive poles of one of these variables.

When fostering working relationships with people from an unfamiliar culture, it is important that you do a bit of research before you begin your interaction with them. Many times your first impression is of critical importance and sets the stage for the relationship, so is beneficial to be as prepared as possible.

Generally, there are a few “rules of thumb” that can be implemented when working with partners from different cultures.

  1. Set a standard of formality
  • Make sure that you are initially somewhat more formal than usual when working with your new colleagues. It is very easy to offend by being too candid and informal at first.
  1. Expect the relationship to take time to build.
  • Don’t expect to be trusted immediately, as people from several countries outside the US take more time to build bonds of trust. It takes even longer in a distributed environment where face-to-face conversation is not always a possibility at some point early on in the relationship. Just remember…“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
  1. Minimize misunderstandings by avoiding slang words and idioms.
  • This is sometimes difficult to do at first because these language adaptations have become such a part of our daily lives and rhetoric. Saying a product is ‘Cool’ doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to us as it does to a non-US native.
  1. Have the same definitions of industry specific words.
  • If there is a word or phrase that is specific to your industry, make sure that everybody is in agreement about the definition and how the word is used.
  1. Speak fairly slowly and make sure to articulate.
  • If you have an accent, try to minimize it as much as possible. Yes, this is not the easiest thing to do but can be done if you focus on it. For example, I moved to Texas from Minnesota and was an Air Traffic Controller. I learned quickly to hide my Minnesota accent so the pilots could actually understand what I was saying.
  1. Don’t raise your voice if you are not understood.
  • Yelling doesn’t help them understand what you are to saying. Try rephrasing what you said using different words, as s/he may not be familiar with one of the words you chose initially. Simplicity is key, so do your best to keep your words as simple as possible.

As I previously mentioned, it is important make a habit of researching the culture you are interacting with before meeting, to minimize misunderstanding and increase productivity. For example, you could be speaking with someone in China and when they say “Yes”, you think that they are agreeing with you, when in fact they are acknowledging that they heard what you said and may in fact not necessarily agree. When working with someone in India and they say that they understand your instructions, you need to make sure to ask them how they plan on executing on what you just told them. At first, they may not be upfront about any misunderstandings or questions they may have, because they could feel at risk of appearing insubordinate or incompetent. When asking them to outline their approach, you will force these questions to the surface so you are able clarify. You may also have a Ukrainian tell you that your idea is wrong and it won’t work. But remember, they aren’t being offensive in their view, just giving you their opinion of the situation. This is a prime example of something that could quite easily come across as rude to someone here in the US, if one didn’t know better

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About Rick Holmberg

Rick Holmberg is the VP of Engineering at KM Ware Solutions and has more than fifteen years of software development and Project Management experience. With over 6 years working with Agile in a distributed environment, Rick provides organizations with the unique practices and tools needed to succeed at agile software development. He specializes in aiding organizations that are transitioning to Agile or just starting out with Agile as their software development process. He also has experience across many technologies including: Mobile applications, Web applications, cloud computing and SaaS implementations throughout numerous industries. Rick was chosen to speak at the Agile Business Conference in London in 2011, Agile Austin in 2012 and at numerous client facilities.

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