Your Mileage Will Definitely Vary -- Management in Different Cultures

Business Week magazine (http://businessweek.com/) publishes many interesting how-to articles aimed mainly at small and medium businesses. I also recommend their podcast feed if you are often on the go and need to keep your iPod well stuffed for journeys.

But the utility of some of these articles is limited outside the US for cultural reasons. Most if not all management techniques are culture dependent and something that works well in the USA probably won’t work in the same way in Singapore, Paris, Tokyo and Rabat.

There’s a good example this week in the article “A Better Way to Deliver Bad News” at http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/nov2007/ca20071120_553131.htm?campaign_id=rss_daily in which they describe an interesting technique for giving negative feedback called “reframing”. The example they give is a manager who wants to tell someone working for them that they don’t delegate enough. Their recommendation is to say instead that the employees of that manager are anxious to take on more responsibility. This can only work in a direct society because in an indirect society this would be the normal way of saying “you don’t delegate enough”.

This is certainly not the only example. One of my favorite examples for intercultural management workshops is Ken Blanchard’s “One Minute Manager”, a well known bestseller which is best not followed too literally outside of the USA unless you are looking for trouble. In this book Blanchard advises managers to reward good employees with a pat on the back. Believe me if you try this in many European countries you will make people feel very uncomfortable. And if you are a male manager and try it in India with a female employee you will get knocked to the ground. In some places you don’t even shake hands with a person of the opposite sex, never mind pat them.

Ironically, even Fons Trompenaars’ excellent and highly recommended “Riding the Waves of Culture”, in my opinion the best practical manual for intercultural management, is also culture dependent. Anyone who has tried delivering culture training or workshops in Asia or Africa will be aware that this kind of discussion of cultural differences is itself sometimes taboo. Just to give one example, in some cultures even to discuss the existence of Trompenaars' seventh dimension can cause offense. Trompenaarians are happy to discuss clinically the difference between cultures that are inner controlled (you are in charge of your own fate) or outer controlled (che sera sera), often blissfully unaware that this makes some people very uncomfortable, since to them the “inner control” option is essentially equivalent to the denial of religion, what I believe Muslims call “kufr” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kufr).

If there is any management technique that is wholly culture independent I have never heard of it. If you are planning on managing people from other countries make sure you get some training or coaching in the art of intercultural management. You will gain in performance, sleep better and get knocked to the ground less often.

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