INSEAD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Working with people from all places and races, it is always a challenge. And in my experience, language is the first barrier to be broken down - it is tantamount to knowing the culture by knowing the language. But then again, it may not always be the case.

What your experience?


I teach cross-cultural management at the international business school Insead, near Paris. For 15 years, I have studied how people in different parts of the world build trust, communicate, make decisions and perceive situations differently, especially in the workplace.

While traveling in Tokyo recently with a Japanese colleague, I gave a short talk to 20 managers. At the end, I asked whether there were any questions or comments. No hands went up. My colleague asked the group again: “Any comments or questions?”

Still, no one raised a hand, but he looked at each person in the audience. Gesturing to one of them, he said, “Do you have something to add?” To my amazement, she responded, “Yes, thank you,” and asked a very interesting question. My colleague repeated this several times.

Afterward, my colleague was unsure how to explain the phenomenon. Then he said, “It has to do with how bright their eyes are.

“In Japan,” he continued, “we don’t make as much direct eye contact as you do in the West. So when you asked if there were any comments, most people were not looking directly at you. But a few people in the group were looking right at you, and their eyes were bright. That indicates that they would be happy to have you call on them.”

That is not something I learned from my upbringing in Minnesota, or during my years spent in living in Europe and Africa.

After the trip I returned to my classroom, where the students are managers from all over the world. I felt both embarrassed and unsettled to see that I had been missing a lot of bright eyes.

In Japan there is an expression, “kuuki yomenai,” which refers to someone who is unable to read the atmosphere. On my trip I was reminded that, with a little curiosity and some help, I could improve my ability to read the Japanese atmosphere.

In today’s economy, an Italian might be negotiating a deal in Nigeria or a German could be managing a team of Brazilians.

In France, I was surprised to hear Americans complain that their French teammates were disorganized and always late. Yet some Indian colleagues were frustrated about those same people being rigid and unadaptable.

I map cultures on eight behavioral dimensions: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling.

For example, the French culture falls between the American and Indian cultures on the scheduling dimension – hence the opposite impressions about chaos versus rigidity.

If you lead a multicultural team, you need to find the flexibility to work up and down these dimensions: watch what makes local managers successful, explain your own style, and perhaps, learn to laugh at yourself. Ultimately, it means learning to lead in different ways.

Focus on understanding behavior in other cultures, and keep finding the bright eyes in the room.

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, September 27, 2014


Post a Comment