Managing Across Cultures: Three Non-Obvious Problems to Watch For

When you are managing people from other cultures you probably expect that they see things differently in some ways, but there are also many deep cultural differences that can cause unexpected problems. Here are three of the most common culture-related surprises I have encountered doing intercultural workshops, and what you can do about them.

1. HIERARCHY HEADACHES.  The world is divided into cultures where hierarchy is very important and those where it is not. Hierarchy enhancing cultures are actually in the majority, but whatever side you come from you are likely to have problems one day. Some effects of hierarchy are clearly visible -- like the way managers in hierarchical cultures distance themselves more from lower level employees -- but some effects are less obvious. If you are from a relatively flat hierarchy culture, for example, and you are managing people who are from a highly hierarchical society you will find that someone might do no work for a time either because you didn't tell them to do anything or they didn't understand. In their world it is the responsability of the boss to know what everyone is doing so they feel it would make you lose face if they pointed out that you forgot them or that your message was not clear. In these cases you have to adopt a more directive style of management and remember that you need to find out what people have problems with because they will not come to you.

2. DIRECT DISASTERS. In a few cultures people are very direct in their communication, in others people are very indirect, most are somewhere in the middle. Direct speakers are often perceived by indirect people to be very rude and indirect people are sometimes perceived as being evasive or even sneaky. But some of the effects are not so obvious. For example, if you are a direct person managing very indirect people they will very often misinterpret what you say because they read into your words hints that you never intended. So if you say "You finished that quickly" they assume that you really meant to say you are not happy with it. To address this problem is more difficult and probably the most effective method is to explain the difference to everyone and then check what people have understood when you have said something. In addition be careful about what you say because it might be misinterpreted as an order.

3. INDIVIDUALIST INTRIGUES. In some cultures people are strongly individualistic -- this is especially common in younger nations like the USA, Australia and so on -- while others tend to identify more with a group, sometimes very strongly as in the case of most Asian countries. This, too, can have effects that sometimes catch managers off guard. People from individualist oriented cultures, for example, tend to reward individuals with bonuses, plaques and other signs of recognition for successful work. This can actually have a negative effect in cultures where people are more collectivist and to be singled out for recognition will embarrass an employee and can even lead to them actively trying to avoid this "humiliation" in future, providing a negative incentive. It is very simple to deal with this issue once you recognize it, rewarding  the whole group or team rather than singling out one person.

There are many other factors that can affect the way you manage people from other cultures, but these three problems are the ones I have heard most often when doing workshops on this topic. Master these three issues and you have already made a good start but to be fully effective you will need to attend a workshop or find a coach/mentor to help.


Related posts about intercultural issues:

Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching on intercultural issues.

All of these articles are based on lectures, workshops and webinars on intercultural communication and management created by the author. For more information about these visit contact me by mail at or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.


Unknown said…
Andrew, thanks for getting at the subtleties. I find that cultural differences are too often stereotyped. I appreciate you also singling out these three. Developing awareness of the points you make would go miles for many managers new to managing across cultures. Thanks!
Andrew Hennigan said…
Hi Suzanne. Thanks for the comment. In my experience managers can make a difference just by understanding a few key ideas like this.

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