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LEAD EFFECTIVELY IN A MULTICULTURAL ENVIRONMENT



Kirjoittanut: Jemina Laitinen - tiimistä FLIP Solutions.

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Written by Jemina Laitinen and Xiaoqing Yang-Pyydysmäki

Culture and multiculturalism are rich in organization and community, but it also brings challenges which might not be faced in a monocultural organization. Being the first multicultural team and team company in Proakatemia has been a demonstrative experience for multiculturalism organizations both from the perspective of leadership and team member. This essay examines multiculturalism in the organization from the point of view of leadership and considers matters which can make leading of multicultural organization effective. In this essay, three cultural scales will be analyzed based on the examples. We will discuss how do cultural differences affect leadership and how to lead effectively in a multicultural environment. 

The culture map by Erin Meyer

Erin Meyer had a great speech at Nordic Business Forum which topic is Lead, negotiation, and getting things done across the world.  The main ideas come from her book The culture map: breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. Meyer is a professor at INSEAD and has been engaged in multicultural research and global team management for many years. In her book, she mainly analyzes and compares the differences in people’s living and working habits in different cultures from the following eight scales. The scales are: 

1. Communicating: Low-context vs. High-context

2. Evaluating: Direct feedback vs. Indirect feedback  

3. Persuading: Applications-first vs. Principles-first 

4. Leading: Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical 

5. Deciding: Consensual vs. Top-down 

6. Trusting: Task-based vs. Relationship-based 

7. Disagreeing: Confrontational vs. Avoid confrontation 

8. Scheduling: Linear time vs. Flexible-time

In this essay, three scales will be introduced in a deeper way, and they have also been used in the discussion of leading multicultural organizations.

 

Analysis with three cultural scales  

1. Communicating: Low–context vs. High – context 

Mayer explained that low–context communication is a spell-it-out culture, it is simple, explicit, and clear, and does not rely on contextual elements such as the speaker’s tone of voice or body language to communicate. High-context communication is the opposite, it is implicit, layered, and nuanced “don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I meant”. 

Figure 1. Communicating (Meyer 2015)

From left to right: Anglo-Saxon cluster (Germanic languages cluster); Romance language cluster; Asian language cluster. 

Meyer explained that the US as a country has about 250 years of history where people moved from different places in the world with different backgrounds have experienced the integration of multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. In this case, concise, clear expression, and low-context communication is more effective. 

High-context cultures usually occur in countries with a long history or a single ethnicity, such as China, Japan, and India. In Japan, the prerequisite for becoming a “good listener” is to be able to “read the air”. Similarly, as in China, it is deep-rooted in the culture to communicate with an understanding of not pointing out, 30% speaking out and 70% of the meaning waiting for others to guess. So, it is common that the boss does not explain things clearly and lets subordinates ponder the hint. It has been described euphemistically as “the art of speaking”. One example, “Let me think about it” usually means “No” in most cases. However, among Eastern countries, Singapore is the country with the lowest context communication, which may be due to its multilingual and multicultural characteristics. (See Figure 1) 

Meanwhile, research shows that the lower the context of the culture, the more people have the habit of writing things down, and recording business activities, such as meeting memos, and confirmation emails. (Meyer, 2015) 

2. Evaluating: Direct feedback vs. Indirect feedback  

Understanding the differences saves you from being “offended”. In the book, Meyer compared direct negative feedback and indirect negative feedback and their connections with explicit and implicit ways of communication. (See Figure 2) 

Figure 2. Evaluating (Meyer 2015)

Low-context: Giving negative feedback as literally and explicitly as possible. High-context: Negative feedback is often conveyed implicitly, requiring the listener to read between the lines. 

To provide negative feedback to a person bluntly, honestly without being softened by positive messages, and possibly criticizing the individual in front of other people seems more common in the countries like Netherlands and Germany. The purpose is to make sure the information is registered clearly without blurry interpretation. However, when people from China work in the Netherlands, the implicit communication culture of being taught never to criticize a colleague in front of others, will encounter big culture shock and even take it personally.  

Indirect negative feedback is to provide feedback softly, subtly, and diplomatically, with positive messages interspersed in it, and criticism is only kept private (Meyer, 2015). From Figure 2 Evaluation, we can see that indirect negative feedback can be given via either low-context communication or high-context communication. While in the US, people used to express themselves explicitly, but they prefer the way of wrapping positive feedback around negative feedback. It is easier to let people accept negative comments after a positive appreciation of certain work or efforts. This is like what has been advocated in Proakatemia to give constructive feedback, e.g. the hamburger method.  

People in a multicultural environment react based on their own perceptions. The conflict may occur when a person from the D quadrant (Figure 2) expects to receive soft, indirect critics privately which preferably combines with positive messages, and A quadrant colleague just speaks out their questions and negative comments face-to-face.  In some Asian cultures, “face” is sometimes more important than facts. Criticisms can turn out to be “If you oppose my opinion, you are opposing me”.  

Therefore, the author suggests balancing the amount of positive and negative feedback. As we always heard “attack someone’s opinion without attacking that person.” 

When communicating with people from other cultures and backgrounds, try to observe and listen more, and talk less. Listen before speaking, and learn before acting.  

 3. Trusting: Task-based vs. Relationship-based 

Building trust is crucial when doing business in the global environment. In some cultures, trust is built based on business-related activities. Good work quality can gain trust easily. However, when seeing the comparison in Figure 3 (Meyer, 2015), the countries on the right side of the line are building more trust more relationships – based which means people tend to use their personal time such as having meals and drinking together to slowly build a deep level of relationship and gain the trust of the other party. 

Figure 3. Trusting (Meyer 2015)

In fact, Figure 3 has precisely reflected the trust building in Finland. As we know, in a normal working environment in Finland, trust is very task-based. Good work performance and a positive attitude will increase the trust of people around you. Outside of the office, Finns like to enhance relationships by taking a sauna, and even to have business cooperation via such activity. When doing business in China, most of the time, establishing a bond of personal relationship is the first step of building trust and then discussing business. The process is slow but relatively stable. Latin American countries are geographically far away from China, but they are surprisingly similar in this perspective.  

It mirrors as well as the Evaluation from the previous part that while giving direct/indirect negative feedback in many low–context countries is task–based, where in high-context countries, it can be easily connected with affecting the personal relationship and then affect the future work process. 

Multiculturalism in FLIP Solutions Osk. 

Multiculturalism in FLIP Solutions means that there have been six to seven different cultures in a bit over ten-person team based on where people are initially from. A bit over half of the team members is from Finland, but we also have ancestries from China, Poland, United States, Vietnam, Ecuador and Brazil. According to Meyer’s culture map and scales presented above, we can see that there is variance in the natural way of communication based on culture. 

Especially the communication from a cultural point of view reaches the wide area on the map on low- and high-context scales. It has been visible in the team. For example, a direct outspoken way of communicating in Finland could feel very rude to many of our team members at the beginning of our journey. At the same time, softening the feedback and avoiding bringing up negative things could feel like code language for Finns.  

Understanding the low-context – high-context and task-based – relation-based matters with how giving feedback differ in certain cultures would help the team to communicate more efficiently and help our business leaders to have more perspective on how to give feedback and communicate with the team. Even though we might understand that we have a diversity of cultures and communication based on that, we did not go as deep into that topic that would be a clever thing to do in the first place. Some of the team members had the experience working in the multicultural environments before but being a company and working with mompreneurs together demands a deeper connection with members. That is why it would have been good to use more time for understanding the differences between team members from a cultural perspective and how their culture affects work ethics and communication. 

 People’s thinking and behaviour are largely influenced by their own culture, sometimes even subconsciously, even for people who have lived overseas for many years and consider themselves “international”. If these cultural differences and thinking patterns under different cultural backgrounds can be considered during our life, it will improve communication and lead effectively in a multicultural working environment.  

 Leading a multicultural organization 

As we could see not just from experience but also regarding Meyer’s cultural map, cultural backgrounds effects to individual’s behaviour and way of interacting with people. That is why there are also some extra matters to take into consideration from the leader’s perspective. According to Toikka (2008), there can see four crucial themes about leading multicultural organizations from the managers’ perspective which can be represented as requirements of multicultural management. These themes are communication, experience and knowledge of manager, skills to act as a cultural middle person and ability to motivate multicultural organizations. (Toikka 2008, 80.) Following paragraphs introduces those themes deeper based on the study by Toikka. 

1. Communication 

Communication can be seen as a crucial challenge in a multicultural organizations. According to Toikka (2008), neutral communication is the most important dimension of the requirements of leading multicultural organizations. Neutral communication means that communication includes as little as possible those elements, which have a possibility to have insulting elements in some cultures. (Toikka 2008, 81.) If an organization consists of a variant diversity of different cultures, it can be hard to manage to remember all those diversity. That’s why the neutral manner of approach is the best way to communicate in a multicultural organization, and when people get more familiar with the community, can communication be adapted in a suitable way. (Toikka 2008, 84.) 

Toikka highlights that neutral communication is a requirement for everyone in a multicultural organizations, not just leaders or managers, but the role of management is crucial for avoiding conflicts. (Toikka 2008, 84.) 

2. Experience and knowledge of the leader 

The second requirement for leading a multicultural organization is leaders’ knowledge and experience for leading the multicultural working community. According to Toikka, it is difficult to build that kind of knowledge just by studying books that come from working abroad or being part of the multicultural work community. (Toikka 2008, 81.)  

3. Skills for being middle person 

A middle person means in this context being the voice and spokesperson of a different cultures. For a manager or leader, it is important to understand different cultures and the ability to solve multicultural problems. (Toikka 2008, 81.) 

4. Motivating multicultural organization 

The ability to motivate, excite and encourage people is a crucial part of being a leader in any kind of organization, but especially in multicultural organizations. Toikka highlighted that knowledge of culture is not that important but knowing the personalities of subordinates and their motivations. (Toikka 2008, 81.) 

Wrap up 

As a leader, understanding the differences between communication styles of cultures is crucial to create a safe atmosphere in working place. If there is no experience or knowledge from those cultures which are present in the working community, building the knowledge and getting better connection with subordinates and teammates on a personal level would help to build communication in a successful way. If there is no opportunity to get to a personal level with people or is a big diversity of different cultures, a neutral way of communicating is the best way to go. Being familiar with cultures helps to understand where communicational conflicts might come from and that would help to solve conflicts.  

Even though cultural background has a big effect on behaviour and communication, it is important to remember that it is not all about the culture which affects communication. Diversity comes from a big variance of things such as values, education, beliefs and personality. Knowing people working with them and their personalities helps to adjust their own communication to a suitable level for them. That helps communication as a leader and also as a team member. 

 

References: 

Meyer, E. 2015. The Culture Map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. Read on Nov – Dec, 2022.

Toikka, S. 2008. Monikulttuurisen organisaation johtaminen esimiennäkökulmasta. Pro-gradu tutkielma. Tampereen yliopisto. 

Figure 1., 2. and 3.: Meyer, E. The Culture Map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. Read on Nov – Dec, 2022.

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