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Broader horizons

Written by Martin Reed on Friday, 03 May 2013. Posted in Leadership, People

International development brings myriad opportunities for small businesses, but it brings its fair share of challenges too

Broader horizons

They say the world is getting smaller, and more and more UK companies are either setting up offices abroad or changing their focus to encompass working globally. In fact, new research from HSBC states that over the next 15 years, the UK is set to increase its international business activity by around 60%.

While this increase in global interaction is clearly an exciting development, it does present companies with a new set of challenges in attempting to align their company cultures with the cultures of their geographically diverse workforce. Each country – and sometimes even each individual region within that country – has its own working culture, its own ideas on work/life balance, its own HR procedures and its own pace of work. This diversity can be refreshing and even breathe new life into a company, but it can make working relationships more complicated with differing approaches to policies and procedures, work ethics, management behaviours and interpersonal relations to contend with.

Some cultures work particularly well together and companies may even find that one country’s approach to a problem complements their own approach perfectly by filling the gaps in a team’s skillset. For example, British employees tend to lean towards high Dominance and Influence behaviours, such as being direct and communicative, whereas German workers tend towards Steadiness and Compliance behaviours such as being methodical and precise. A mixture of behavioural traits can lead to a well-balanced, efficiently functioning team but the differences can be off-putting without the awareness that a tool like psychometric assessment offers. 

To develop the British/German example, a client of ours, a UK engineering company, found it very challenging to set up a manufacturing post in Germany. The German employees saw the Brits’ Dominance and Influence traits as aggressive and impulsive, whereas the British employees perceived the German Steadiness and Compliance behaviours as overly passive and rule-focused. By using psychometric assessments to profile their team members, the management team were able to increase their understanding of these different behaviours and appreciate what each individual contributed to the group, with an understanding that a blend of behaviour traits are essential for a well-functioning team. Increasing both the managers’ understanding and the employees’ self-awareness helped them to modify their approach to take these behavioural differences into account. 

We’re increasingly being asked to help clients deal with issues brought on by cross-cultural working with a desire to get their team working as a cohesive unit, regardless of the different cultures within it. We’ve found the key to achieving this is to see the team, and help the team see itself, as a single element, with the focus on common aims rather than disparate cultural attitudes through helping each individual member increase self-awareness. This can be particularly beneficial when one culture is more dominant than others.

A pertinent example is that of Eastern cultures who have a tendency to favour etiquette and custom over asserting their authority in a more dominant or ostentatious manner. Neither approach is right or wrong, good or bad – just different, but it often leads to quieter cultures feeling overlooked and unappreciated. Profiling can highlight each individual’s contribution to the team and help recognise the involvement of those cultures who don’t necessarily shout the loudest. This can be invaluable in helping subtler cultures acclimatise to working alongside more outwardly dominant ones. 

An issue we see crop up time and time again is an assumption made by the parent company that other cultures will automatically understand their working behaviours and behave the same way. Businesses need to recognise that other cultures may not instinctively behave or think the same way so taking the time to create an Ideal Culture Profile and exploring what the company is trying to achieve and which core behaviours team members need to demonstrate to reach that goal helps to create a ‘company culture’. When working in an unfamiliar culture, it’s up to the senior management of the business to create a shared culture, a shared mission statement and a shared vision to help employees understand what is being asked of them and, vitally, why they should embrace any changes in behaviour rather than resenting them. Effective communication of a company’s new culture can alleviate insecurity and help create a common goal – regardless of geographical cultural differences.

As more and more companies find themselves faced with growing international business opportunities, understanding and tolerance will become key words to achieving business success. Businesses will develop an awareness of the fact that differences in corporate and geographical cultures needn’t be viewed as a negative thing, but rather an opportunity to add richness and flair to any truly multinational business. 

About the Author

Martin Reed

Reed has been at the helm of psychometric testing company Thomas International since 2007, after being appointed as chairman two years earlier. As well as penning this regular column for Elite Business he is also a founding member of the Bucks Business First and a fellow of the Institute of Directors.

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