Work Life

Understanding the Pitfalls of Working across Cultures

Photo of Holger Reisinger
March 8, 2016
Reading time
3 minutes

Cross-cultural teams offer outstanding new perspectives and fresh insights – as long as you avoid the pitfalls. Here’s how to avoid embarrassment in a cross-cultural environment and how to recover if you make a blunder.

Germany, Rur Reservoir, smiling businessman in canoe
My first experience with my employer was a memorable one, to say the least.

I had just been hired and was anticipating my first videoconference with my boss. Even as a German who would be working for a Danish company, I hadn’t given much thought to any cultural differences between us.

Having prepared all morning, I positioned myself behind my desk and initiated the call – I couldn’t believe my ears.

He was riding a bicycle.

In the rain.

“Hello Holger,” he said, “I hope you don’t mind. My wife has the car today.”

Business must be done a little differently in Denmark, I thought to myself.

It was an enlightening lesson in the cultural differences between nationalities in a global workplace. It’s one we all should heed, especially as videoconferencing technology enables us to easily build cross-cultural teams and HD video and crystal clear sound bring us together as never before.

Realizing the Promise and Avoiding the Pitfalls

As I later replayed the episode in my head and sought to make sense of it, I recalled a business school course in which we discussed Geert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher who studied cultural differences across countries and their effect on business.

He outlined six dimensions of national culture that, in general, distinguish countries from each other and influence their interactions with other cultures. The dimensions include such characteristics as power, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and others.

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One of the dimensions, Power Distance Index, is worth a closer look. This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. In low Power Distance societies, people try to equalize the distribution of power, while ones with a high Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place.

In Denmark, a low Power Distance country, workplaces are very informal, employees have a high degree of autonomy, managers facilitate and empower, and business is regularly done on a first-name basis. That’s in contrast to my native Germany, where organizations are more hierarchical, the workplace is more formal, loyalty is prized and communication is very direct and to-the-point.

Taken together, Hofstede’s six dimensions help explain many of the dynamics we experience in the cross-cultural workplace. They’re why, in some cultures, it is considered inappropriate to disagree with individuals to their face and worse to do so in the presence of others, while in others it’s perfectly acceptable or even encouraged. Or, in my case, why my new boss had no hesitation about conducting a meeting from his bicycle, while I would have never considered it.

Research and Awareness Are Key

Hofstede’s work is worth considering as we increasingly develop cross-cultural relationships throughout our organizations. We need to be particularly mindful that differing cultures have differing norms when in a collaborative environment.

We can do that by learning more about Hofstede’s theories (which I highly recommend). At work, we should take some time to understand who we’re inviting to join our meeting or team and researching the cultural norms that may influence their interactions.

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And if we find ourselves in cross-cultural situations where we aren’t sure how our words or actions are being perceived, we should pay attention to the nonverbal gestures and visual clues others are giving off, which may hint at cultural differences.

Through research and awareness you’ll build stronger, more effective cross-cultural relationships and conduct better, more productive meetings.

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