Now that even the smallest business can be global, we can find ourselves working in teams that might be comprised of members from all around the world. Conflict can arise from the smallest and most inconsequential-seeming cultural differences, but the easiest way to avoid these mistakes is to simply be aware of people’s differences.
Professor Erin Meyer’s 2014 book ‘The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business’, provides a model for decoding how cultural differences impact international business.
Meyer’s work focuses on how the world’s most successful leaders navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a global environment, and she has much experience of this. This includes leading multi-cultural teams as the Director of Training and Development at HBOC and as the Director of Business Operations at McKesson Corporation, and as Country Director for Aperian Global, an internationally positioned cross-cultural management firm.
Other experience includes running a training organisation for Asian immigrants in the United States and teaching English students in Botswana. She is currently Senior Affiliate Professor in the Organisational Behaviour Department at INSEAD, an international business school with campuses all over the world.
In her book, Meyer claims you can improve relationships by considering where you and international partners fall on each of eight scales in the following topics: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling. She says: “Leaders today, managers, all of us, need to be really aware of these cultural differences.”
The fact that different cultures have vastly different attitudes to time-keeping and scheduling will be obvious to anyone who has travelled. On one end of the scale, there are the Germans and Swiss, and Americans all quite precise about time-keeping; with Western Europeans and Latin Americans who tend to be more flexible; but Africa, the Middle East, and India are all extremely flexible.
As an American, who lives in Paris, and has worked all over the world with multi-cultural teams, Meyer points out that you also have to be aware of your own biases; “One of the rules is that the way you perceive a culture may be different to the way that another culture perceives that culture. So if you’re working in a global organisation, you’ll have to understand cultural relativity.”
Doing business face-to-face in Nigeria
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world, home to people from many different cultures and backgrounds, and workers from all over the world.
Joanne Murray from the UK, worked in Nigeria as a Line Manager at Lloyd's Bank, and explains how one cultural difference was causing trust problems in meetings with non-Nigerian staff as their Nigerian colleagues would not make eye contact; “In Nigeria, it is a mark of respect to lower your eyes and not make eye contact. I have Nigerian friends, so I knew this.” Once Murray had explained this to colleagues, relationships between team members improved.
The Nigerian attitude to adventure in business is also very active. Murray says that setting up a new business is very normal in Nigerian culture: “Most Nigerian men I know have a business, or several, actually. In Nigeria, it's often importing and selling, and from this country [the UK] it's often exporting and selling. Buying cars and vans and driving them over, using a ferry or ship is common. Also gadgets and tech.”
Be culturally curious
If in doubt, ask for input and be truly interested in an international perspective. Try not to let your own cultural quirks colour your opinions of your global workmates.
Research your team beforehand to find out a little background first, but always be aware of stereotypes – just because I am British does not mean I love fish and chips! Erin Meyer advises that “Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, being curious and humble, I would say are the three things that are most important when you’re working internationally.”