Managing people from different cultures can be a challenge.
Different viewpoints, needs and expectations can manifest in many ways within multicultural teams.
For managers with little awareness over the power and influence of cultural differences, it can be tough trying to figure out what might be causing problems within their teams.
However, with some effort and insight, it’s also possible for managers to unpick cultural differences and learn how to manage, or leverage, these differences effectively.
In this blog we’re going to set out the 6 cultural differences we believe every great manager should be aware of!
DON'T FORGET TO DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE INFOGRAPHIC AT THE END!
6 Important Cultural Differences in Teams
1. Different Approaches to Time
Not every culture in the world experiences time in the same way.
This can be explained by many factors such as environment, history, traditions and general customs.
When it comes to time, the researcher Edward T. Hall categorised cultures as either being monochronic or polychronic.
In cultures where a monochronic approach prevails, time is experienced and used in a linear way. People tend to do one activity at a time and dislike having to move away from a schedule.
In cultures where a polychronic approach to time is preferred, people experience time in the now and tend to focus on several tasks at once. They are much less dependent on detailed structures to control time.
Examples of Cultural Differences Over Time
Below are some examples of how these different approaches to time may be realised within the team or workplace.
- Monochronic: The focus of an activity is more on the task and making schedules
- Polychronic: The focus of an activity is more on relationships and harmony
- Monochronic: The approach is structured, linear and highly task-focused
- Polychronic: The approach is less structured, more holistic and people-focused
- Monochronic: The focus is on the short term, meeting immediate needs and requirements
- Polychronic: The focus is on the longer term, with concern for building relationships over time
2. Different Expectations Around Hierarchy
Cultures vary in how they understand power, social differences and hierarchy.
The intercultural researcher Hofstede termed this, ‘Power Distance’.
In some cultures, inequality is taken as being the norm and no attempt is made to make any changes. Power difference is natural, good and to be respected as it provides order.
In other cultures, inequality is seen as undesirable, which means it has to be changed. Power difference must be corrected through legal, political and/or economic means.
At work, this difference often comes to the fore around expectations around management styles, responsibility and accountability.
Examples of Cultural Differences Over Hierarchy
Below are some examples of how these different approaches to hierarchy may be realised within the team or workplace.
- Hierarchical: Top-down, more autocratic and authoritative planning is displayed, in which managers make decisions with little or no consulting employees
- Egalitarian: Employees are consulted and participate and may be left to implement the plan in the way they believe is best
- Hierarchical: The group structure is tightly controlled with authority and responsibility being centralised
- Egalitarian: The group structure relies on individuals. Authority is decentralised
- Hierarchical: Leaders are expected to display their rank. Employees like being closely supervised and feel comfortable with a directive manager
- Egalitarian: Leaders are expected to be 'like everyone else'. Managers exhibit participative or consultative styles and avoid what is seen as micro-management
3. Different Understandings of Co-operation
Do you think all cultures understand co-operation and collaboration in the same way?
In some cultures, especially those built on the idea of a ‘free market’, co-operation is much more competitive. Employees are encouraged to take personal responsibility, to be better than their colleagues, to acquire personal wealth and to push for personal success.
In other cultures, co-operation has nothing to do with the above but more about collective harmony, a pleasant working space and future security. Competition is seen as aggressive and selfish.
It is very easy for people from different cultural backgrounds to misinterpret the intentions of colleagues.
Examples of Cultural Differences Over Co-Operation
Below are some examples of how these different approaches to co-operation may be realised within the team or workplace.
- Competitive: The emphasis is on speed and task performance when putting plans in place
- Collective: Emphasis is on maintaining relationships and face during planning
- Competitive: Individual achievement is encouraged. Managers have more of a leadership role
- Collective: Group integration is encouraged. Managers have more of a facilitating role
- Competitive: The leader’s role is to reward achievement.
- Collective: The leader’s role is to protect.
4. Different Emphasis on Tasks
Within teams, different cultures will place different emphasis on tasks.
Some cultures focus on getting things done, while others focus on how things get done.
Within the cultural training field this is often referred to as Task-Orientated vs Relationship-Orientated cultures.
For task-orientated cultures, they see success and progress as completing jobs, tasks, projects and actions. They seek challenge and love achieving personal goals. Their prime motivators are recognition of achievement and promotion.
For the relationship-orientated cultures, it’s all about the people – building and nurturing sound relationships. The emphasis is placed on working in the moment and living the experience rather than achievement itself. The prime motivators are is the promise of future rewards while maintaining social harmony.
Examples of Cultural Differences Over Tasks
Below are some examples of how these different approaches to tasks may be realised within the team or workplace.
- Task-Orientated: Tends to be done by developing measurable, time-framed, actionable steps
- Relationship-Orientated: Tends to be done with a strong focus on the vision or ideal an organisation wishes to attain
- Task-Orientated: Involves developing action-oriented documentation for project management in which task responsibilities are clearly spelled out
- Relationship-Orientated: Based more on the assumption that implementation is not so much dependent on action steps as on common vision and personal trust
- Task-Orientated: Managers are considered to be effective if they have the necessary expertise and competence
- Relationship-Orientated: Managers are considered to be effective if their personal philosophy, values and style are seen as compatible
5. Difference Levels of Personal Space
What is private and what is personal varies greatly from culture to culture.
Some cultures like to keep their personal lives private. They may expect more personal space, not only in terms of physical distance, but generally. They may interpret questions about their families as prying or jump back if a colleague tried to put their arms around them.
Other cultures expect a much more personal approach. They don’t keep their personal lives private and expect to know their colleagues personally. They tend to be more ‘touchy feely’ at work and become much more emotionally invested.
Within teams, this can have several consequences for trust and communication.
Examples of Cultural Differences Over Personal Space
Below are some examples of how these different approaches to space may be realised within the team or workplace.
- Private: Tendency to use more individualistic or systematic forms of planning
- Personal: Tend to use more group oriented or authoritative forms of planning
- Private: The approaches used tend to centre on tasks
- Personal: The approaches used tend to be more centred on personal needs
- Private: Managers use more explicit measures of staff performance
- Personal: Managers can use more informal checks on staff performance
6. Different Communication Styles
Communication styles change from culture to culture.
Edward T. Hall categorised cultures as being either High or Low Context communicators.
In high-context cultures, such as those found in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, the physical context of the message carries a great deal of importance. People tend to be more indirect and to expect the person they are communicating with to decode the implicit part of their message.
In low-context cultures, such as the United States, Germany and the Netherlands, people tend to be explicit and direct in their communications. It’s in such cultures you’ll hear phrases such as “Say what you mean”, “Cut to the Chase” and “Stop beating around the bush.”
For those not aware of these basic differences, it can cause all sort of communication challenges within the workplace.
Examples of Cultural Differences Over Communication
Below are some examples of how these different approaches to communication may be realised within the team or workplace.
- Low-context: develop plans that are explicit, detailed, quantifiable and information-based
- High-context: develop plans that are more implicit and less detailed in terms of instructions
- Low-context: Task-responsibility guidelines are explicit: they are detailed and understood through verbal or written instruction
- High-context: Assigning tasks and responsibilities are implicit and understood according to the context
- Low-context: Detailed contracts of employment and explicit performance appraisals
- High-context: The criteria and methods for recruitment, selection, pay and firing are not explicit
Thanks for reading our quick guide to managing different cultures. We hope your found it useful.
Learn more about Management across the World
If you want to learn more about the management culture of a particular country, then have a look at our Cross Cultural Management Guides.
Over 60+ countries covered with great insights into expectations and norms around management.
Learn more about Managing Your Team
If you are looking for some tailored training, we also offer custom training courses on managing multicultural teams.
Our experts will design and deliver a course specifically for you and/or your team.
Take a Course on Cultural Differences at Work
If you are new to cultural differences, then why not sign-up for our Cultural Awareness eLearning Course?
It’s a great introduction to the topic and a useful starting point.
You can watch a sample below for free or visit the course page if you want to upgrade for only $5.
Infographic: 6 Common Cultural Differences in Teams
Feel free to download and/or share the infopgraphic for this article.