Advice points for working across cultures in Supply Chain
Written by Katherine King
1. Know when “yes” means yes, and “yes” means no
In some countries, saying no is downright rude. As a result, when people from those countries are asked yes or no questions like, “Can you get that done by Friday?” The only polite answer to that question is “yes.”
Knowing when it really means commitment is an art form, but a good starting point is to build context, for example, to know the organisational chart surrounding the individual and the relationships they have with other clients. If you are new on the scene or haven’t fostered the relationship side of the business, there is a good chance that “yes” really means “When I’ve taken care of my other responsibilities or longer standing relationships.”
2. Decide if you need to start with the task or the relationship
Developing your relationships before jumping to the task at hand may seem slower initially, but can yield long term gains. If you are from a task oriented culture (for example the US, UK, Germany) working with cultures that initially tend to focus on relationships (India, China, Mexico), a couple of dinners and a few nice comments at the beginning of an email are not going to do the trick. For relationship focused cultures, you need to understand your network’s network, getting to know the people to whom they have primary responsibility and getting a real idea of what success looks like to them. Not only will you have more tools to motivate, but you can manage your own scheduling commitments as well as be more strategic about finding solutions when issues arise.
3. Identify the communication style of your counterpart
Some people get right to the point, whereas others find this barbaric and uncivilised. Similarly, some people speak in niceties and deliver messages indirectly, while others find that untrustworthy and inefficient.
Regardless of your preference, knowing what mode of communication is being used is important in figuring out what messages are being delivered. Some people rely heavily on words to send and receive messages and miss important indirect messages (like whether or not a commitment will really be met). Others are so indirect that when they work with people who “say it as it is,” they find themselves disliking or avoiding them and miss key opportunities. By identifying communication style preferences you can be more deliberate in decision making because you are better able to “hear” messages that would otherwise be outside of your awareness.
4. Reserve judgment
There is very little solution making when stuck in states of judgment. Phrases like, ‘they’re slow’, ‘they’re loud,’ ‘they can’t be trusted’ or ‘they are unreliable,’ are all signs of an employee who is not being globally savvy in trying to determine what is actually going on. When you see something that offends you, it is a learning opportunity. The global leader reserves judgment and digs deeper as the chances are that people aren’t walking out of their house in the morning thinking, “I am going to frustrate one of my international colleagues today.” On the contrary, something in their culture is the reason for that behaviour – the trick is to figure out what it is.
5. Stick to descriptions
When working internationally, people have a natural tendency to interpret and evaluate the behaviours of others. Without knowing about the invisible sides of another’s culture such as their values, beliefs and assumptions it is likely that you could be jumping to incorrect conclusions.
In some cultures a firm hand-shake is considered disrespectful while in others it is the first opportunity to establish trust. By describing the action (that handshake was not firm), you are not interpreting the meaning (I can’t trust) or evaluating (that is bad) according to your own culture. Therefore, you should dig deeper into what the actual meaning is.
6. Know your cultural self
Cultural self-awareness is hard to come by until you gain experience either living or working overseas. If you don’t have that luxury while working with colleagues or suppliers internationally it is important to recognise that when you like or don’t like something about working with a particular nationality that it is saying as much about your cultural self as it is about the other party’s. “Culture hides much more than it reveals and, strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.” – Edward T. Hall, Cultural Anthropologist
7. Familiarize yourself with peoples’ work style preferences
Work style preferences vary across cultures. In some cultures the predominant style is to gather 20% of information before launching a project and then correct along the way. In other cultures, that would be seen as irresponsible and the tendency is to gather 99% of information before moving forward. The former see the latter as slow and ineffective. The latter see the former as fast and ineffective. Some researchers believe they both get to the same place at the same time, just differently.
8. Identify the definition of a good manager
When working across cultures the definitions of what makes a good manager vary widely. Some people manage by objective, whilst others manage by process. While quality control programs provide a great bridge across these two cultural preferences styles, objective oriented employees may want less involvement of a manager (process oriented management = micro-managing = negative) while process-oriented employees may need more involvement (objective oriented = uninvolved = negative). Neither is bad, just different.
9. Develop qualities of good global leadership
Every employee who is working across different cultures requires basic global leadership skills in order to be effective. Often staff are given jobs that are impossible to accomplish because the time-lines don’t allow for the delays caused by cultural misunderstandings. By developing executives, managers and employees through coaching or training with the competencies associated with being a good global leader, organisations are better able to create strategies that are culturally appropriate and inspire their employees to embrace working across cultures rather than resent it.
10. Find a THIRD culture
In the end, working across cultures is not about good or bad, but identifying the differences as just that – differences. Once differences can be identified, the effective global executive, manager or employee can establish a third shared culture that incorporates the best of all worlds. By creating a unifying culture that doesn’t rely solely on the imposition of the client or headquarters cultures, but maximises local knowledge of international players, cultural differences can cease to be a barrier and emerge as an invaluable tool.