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06 Aug


Don’t be complacent about the challenges of managing across cultures (especially when you think it won’t be that difficult)

6th August 2015 | By |

Managing across culturesI recently read a HBR piece (Creating a Culturally Sensitive Corporation) by Luc Minguet of Michelin talking about some of the challenges he encountered in moving to the United States despite having lived and worked previously in a number of European countries including a year in the US. Most people recognize that cultural differences can be challenging when they are very pronounced. So for example, most people would see the desirability of cultural awareness training for Europeans prior to an assignment in China (or vice versa). When the cultures are superficially similar people often assume they can wing it but that very similarity probably makes it even harder to see the potential issues and where you may be creating a negative impression or impact.  Managing across cultures is never easy even if the culture seems quite similar to your own. As Minguet says in the article “it’s precisely when you expect to have no problems that you end up having them.”

In his case the HR manager had to talk to him about the effect he was having on employees. It was fortunate that the HR manager had lived in France and so was sensitive to the cultural differences between France and the US in managing people. A specific problem was the manner in which Minguet was giving feedback to his employees. Used to the French style of focusing on what someone is doing wrong and correcting it, he was failing to reinforce the positive actions of the individual along with giving the negative feedback. Understandably his American employees were wounded by what seemed to them a totally negative rating of their performance. Minguet points out that this different style of feedback also causes problems for American managers with French employees. The positive reinforcement seems like glowing praise to the French employees who are then hurt and bemused when their apparently spectacular performance does not lead to promotion and pay rises.

As well as demonstrating how useful it is for managers to have trusted mentors and advisers in the workplace such as the HR manager in Minguet’s case, this example also shows us that it is extremely difficult for employees to communicate the effect that culturally insensitive management may be having on them. It would take a very courageous employee with a good understanding of their manager’s culture to have such a conversation. Managers may unintentionally cause valued employees to disengage from their work and maybe to leave the organisation. So as managers we need to have particular sensitivity to cultural differences in our workforce and consider the effect we may have on those employees.

During one of my training courses in cross cultural understanding we were talking about forms of address in different cultures, especially when addressing superiors. Some of the Irish participants were laughing riotously at the idea of addressing their managers by formal titles, e.g. Dr. Brown, Mrs. Smith etc. A Polish participant gave them food for thought when she described her first weeks at work in Ireland. She said that every time her boss was in the vicinity she had to mentally tell herself “Call her Marion, call her Marion, call her Marion” since to address her boss by her first name went against all her instincts. Not such a big deal you might think except that she had this internal voice disturbing her while her manager gave her on the job training, instruction on work processes and even in team meetings when important information was being imparted. Her manager was blissfully unaware of this of course. Maybe she wondered why her new team member seemed distracted at times. She may have thought she was a bit slow to take on training. In fact she may have downgraded her rating of the employee’s performance without having any idea of just how much effort was being employed.

Minguet says that he now starts off a conversation with new colleagues from other countries with “Here’s how I give feedback in my culture. How does it work in yours?” This is a great idea and a very practical tip. It gives people the permission to be open about how cultural differences might be affecting them as well as heightening cultural awareness amongst all employees.