There are reasons why global companies do not address culture. Reasons which are reasonable, rational, logical, human, deeply human. However many things we do which are reasonable, are not reasonable enough, not rational enough, not logical enough. Many things we do are human, but not human enough.
We need to face problems. And one of those problems is the influence of culture on collaboration. We need to face them for our own good as colleagues, for the good of our organisations, for our customers, our suppliers, for the good of our ecosystems.
So, let’s go through the reasons why companies make the mistake of not addressing culture.
We are not educated to explore national cultural logics. Neither at universities, nor during graduate studies, nor in executive education programs.
This is not a surprise. There are many subjects which must be covered. There is simply no room for culture. And let’s not forget, first you need experts on culture before it can be taught.
Then there is the very practical question. If an institution of higher education decides to address culture which cultures should they choose?
Then there is political correctness. A strong trend for the last 25+ years in the U.S. And over the last decade identity politics has become very strong,
But seldom is there real discussion about how national cultures think. It’s a contradiction. On the one side folks are drawing clear distinctions between ethnic groups. On other side there little to no discussion about how those groups think, therefore work.
There are very seldom such discussions – direct, open, thoughtful, respectful. And therefore very seldom real discussion within global companies.
People are People
Many simply say “people are people.” This is the most common fallback position. What’s behind it? It is the hope that good intentions will be prevail, that collaboration will go smoothly.
And it is true, people are people. At a fundamental level we all need air, water, food, shelter, safety, healthcare, family, friends, love. But from there on we are human beings, from and imbedded in a national culture.
And because cultures are different, there are differences, in how they think and work. Folks, it can’t be any other way. The statement “people are people” leads to companies not addressing cultural differences. It’s the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand.
Colleagues are so focused on the substance of their work that they do not consider differences in approaches. We are all simply too busy to reflect, to gain distance, on our work, on our collaboration.
Colleagues are under pressure to deliver results, to move fast. We all have become highly transactional. We have little time or patience to step back in order to analyze the situation.
Corporate Culture vs. Country Culture
The debate about which runs deeper corporate culture or country culture I will address in a separate video. But for now and only briefly:
Country culture runs deeper company culture. Stated differently, company culture is nothing more than a manifestation of country culture. National culture exists first. Companies exist within, are rooted in, national culture.
Most global companies ignore the influence of country culture. They place their hopes in standardized ways of working, in the so-called harmonization of processes. They believe that how the company does things, processes, will make cultural differences irrelevant. I think they are wrong.
I will address this at length in a separate video. But for now and briefly: Fear is the deepest, most ancient, most powerful driver of human behavior. It is frightening to reflect on who we are as individuals, on who we are as a people. It is frightening to go deep, to explore, to identify the deeper drivers in us.
Machine Age Thinking
Complicating the situation is Machine Age thinking. We live in the age of the machine. Man created machines and machines have worked wonders for man. But there is a tendancy to see ourselves as parts of machine or worse as machines ourselves.
We organize ourselves and work as if we were one big machine. See the importance within companies: organizational structures, processes, technologies. See the dominance of numbers. Current thinking is that if something is measurable, then it is relevant. If not measurable, then it is not relevant.
But wait, what about human thought, about human interaction? These are impossible to measure. Are they, therefore, irrelevant? The same goes for complex cross-border interactions. Companies attempt to manage those interactions as if they were machines. It doesn’t work. People aren’t machines.
Difficult to Articulate
We sense cultural differences, but have difficulty articulating them. We are not trained to, not accustomed to, do not have the language, for articulating what we experience at a deeper level.
We try to engage with each other in meaningful discussion about the differences in how we think and work. But we quickly become frustrated. And understandably so.
We try to get clarity about collaboration, but it often leads to negative results. We feel embarrassed. We feel awkward and uncomfortable. And we realize how highly sensitive the subject matter is. In many cases the discussions lead to confrontation.
Working in global teams is complex. Basic communication is difficult. One major reason is language. Another reason is different time zones. It can be cumbersome to schedule times to talk.
And then there are organization set-ups and processes. These are not always aligned. In fact, it is often unclear who to reach out to. Add to those factors and annoyances national cultural differences and the situation becomes even more complex.
Us against Them
This is a very serious topic. I will address it at length in a separate video. But for now only briefly.
If cross-border collaboration is the result of an acquisition or a merger or a merger within a company, there might be an atmosphere of competition, of us-against-them.
Now this is a very human inclination. We seek security within our tribe. And that is our home company, home colleagues, and home culture. We Americans against those Germans. Or we Germans against those Americans.
Folks, us-against-them is not good. It is destructive and self-destructive. And it becomes even worse when management manipulates the fears of the people they are responsible for. Not good. Really bad.
Then there is vulnerability. Even if both sides are open to addressing cultural differences in a structured and informed way, it means being open to the possibility that the approach of the other culture is better, more effective, faster, less expensive.
And that, folks, has real consequences, for real people, in real jobs, with real bills to pay. Opening up to each other is often felt, and understood, as a threat. We feel unprotected. We feel vulnerable.
Even if their approach has no negative consequences, we still sense that doing things their way means a disadvantage for us. We become a kind of junior partner in the working relationship. Why? Because the approach chosen is native to them, but foreign to us.
Their way of doing things means very concrete things. Their processes, their methods, their tools. That all affects the substance of our work, day in and day out. Now, change is seldom comfortable, seldom enjoyable, especially if we have to do things in a non-native way, in a foreign way. That is particularly uncomfortable.
All of the things I have mentioned in the previous videos are very human reasons to simply avoid discussion, to not engage, in a structured and informed conversation about culture and collaboration.
So, yes, human reasons. But not human enough. More human, more deeply human, is to address them, to get cultural differences to work for, and not against, collaboration.