Improving Cross-Cultural Co-Operation

Presented by Agnieszka Chęś at IT Matters Conference ONLINE

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Again, welcome to this session and i'm happy to share with you a bit of my experience and since we are quite a crowd here, could you please write in the chat box? Where are you from? But I mean, where are you from your cultural backgrounds referring to your cultural background, which culture you subscribed to. It can be your ethnic culture, it can be your national culture, it can be the culture of your of your religion. I see we have Polish people and from Nigeria, Argentina, amazing, actually. And we are a global team. And it's a great community to discuss Polish and German cultural backgrounds. Turkish Western universalism. Great, great. So yeah, so we are a perfect team and definitely if this was face to face, we would have great conversations; Greek and French. Yes. So, you see, culture is not a black and white. actually answer, not black and white topic to discuss, because we may have different different identities. Why is it that I suggested to this topic about Western cultures and the rest of the world? Mainly because I have struggled myself in many, many years in many, many projects. As you can see, I am a project manager. And I am also an academic teacher. And and I work on projects in different markets. I worked for four years in the Middle East, I led a team of colleagues from Zanzibar, India, and Oman. And we cooperated closely with American colleagues. So I think I have some insights to share with you that hopefully, will be useful for you, maybe tomorrow, or maybe one day. And the picture you can see here, it's a picture I got from an Omani friend, he actually had it as his profile picture. And I believe that is a beautiful metaphor of collective cultures. It's appealed orange.

And the key concept which I would like to share with you is the difference between collective cultures and individualistic cultures, collectivism and individualism. It may have some associations related to politics, but it's not what we are about to talk today. And for me very many times, when I think about what is the difference in values, and how actually my colleagues from Africa or from somewhere in in India or Latin America today, debate may basically have a different mindset and different perception of priorities and values, because of this main difference. So, what is collectivism, collectivism is about this concept refers to psychology and sociology. And basically, as this beautiful pictures illustrates it. When people are born in collective cultures that are treated as belonging to the tribe, they really do have a very extended family. And their identity is mostly an in group identity, where your identity is 'we' identity and it's normal in those kind of cultures actually, to sacrifice what you want for the good of the of the group. And it's good to merge with the group. For collectivist cultures. People who are from outside their tribe are excluded to some extent, are the out group, or different people may be seen as strangers, and there should be no competition within groups. Competition is between the groups but within the group, we cultivate harmony we make everybody to feel welcome, and admired and cherished and accepted because harmony is important for the group to survive, to be happy ,to prosper, to avoid friction. And, as a logical consequence, relationships come first. Tasks work. Work goals come second, or maybe even third.

And I will be speaking from the position of Western cultures because all my international experience actually made me learn more about my Polish cultural background made me and made me understand it better and deeper. And I did, I did realise that I am a representative of an individualistic culture. So in individualistic cultures, we believe we take care of ourselves, we are responsible for ourselves, less for the for the group. And we believe that people are other people, are just individuals, they have the same rights. And they basically also should take care of themselves. So the group links, ties are very loose. And this reminds me of one of my very good friends from Denmark. And during this vacation, his daughter came from the States for one month, and she basically just kept calling, calling him, they never met in person. So because this is the perception and the perception of family relations, once you are an adult, you're independent and you take care of yourself. So in individualistic cultures, we are more people we have the identity, and competition between individuals is absolutely fine. Tasks come first. And confrontation is also good. It may even bring some progress. Given this, what would be your guesses? Which cultures in the world are very individualistic cultures? Yes, of course, Western cultures? Absolutely. Any guess about a specific country? Yes, Gabrielle, you're absolutely right. And it's of no surprise that in those cultures, basically, I is written with a capital letter like an English.

So you will see now the list that 'I' prepared for you and this map. This map shows some research from the 70s. And the darker the colour the more individualistic is the culture, the more the 'I' values prevail in those cultures. The US, Great Britain, Australia, Western Europe, Western culture. Here you can see the list that I prepared for you based on some more recent research from 2015. And you will see that individualist cultures United States, Australia, Netherlands, Hungary, New Zealand, Italy, Denmark, France, Scandinavia, Scandinavian countries, Poland is also there. Israel, I put it here as something interesting because it's, it's kind of like African, Asian country in between, yet still, on the side of individualism. And collective cultures, as you may remember, from the description of this session, 70% of the global population are people who believe, who were actually raised in the cultures of collective values. And Guatemala is at the very, very top. By the way, this is the country in the world that has the highest percentage of Native people. And we see here Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Chile, all the Arab countries and Mediterranean countries. And I would like to show you also some different approaches. But just to just to show you that it's not just an opinion of one researcher or it's not my opinion, it actually has been confirmed by so many different people that there is a lot in common between certain groups of countries and if you look at this map, you will see Protestant Europe and English speaking countries and those are very individualistic countries, hereby are called self expression values countries. What does it mean? It means basically, that people in those countries have tolerance to people who are different, because it is accepted to be different. It is accepted to maybe be a gay or lesbian forigner, and there is the rising demand for freedom of speech and decision making participation in politics and economic life. And the collective cultures are more on the side of survivor family values and strong religious conservative values. And you may ask yourself A question I used to ask myself a question. If countries when they grow over time if they can maybe move more towards being individualistic countries. And yes and no, it could be actually another presentation another session, but in general Yes. And it depends on the wealth, the welfare of the country, the more individualism we grow there and then the less people we depend on very religious on the tribe on their in group. I wanted to show you actually how it is dynamic, how the culture can be dynamic. And let me share with you this map that perfectly illustrates cultures actually change. Hope you can see now this, this is showing research done in six waves between 1981 and 2000. I think 12. So, you see, actually the cultures evolve and some cultures move more towards individualism. I am showing it because I just believe it's it's very interesting to know it is not easy to observe it from generation to generation, but but all together, wealth and economic growth moves countries towards individualism. And just another bead of a different perspective of cultures. This shows the how an English teacher along his career researched 50,000 executives in almost 70 countries. And here again, you see those collective cultures, but they have a lot in common. And what did he notice, he noticed that people in those collective cultures, they pay attention to family, to feelings, to creation of positive social atmosphere, they don't care that much about agendas and deadlines. They want to harmonise and perfect, it's important to respect the dignity of the other people, they are good listeners. So I'm definitely there is there are differences between Western culture and individual culture, so called and collective culture.

So what is in it for us how we can use it for our cross cultural teams. And interestingly, you should know that the man who started this kind of research and to actually introduce the term collectivism and individualism, Gary Tosh that he did his research for, actually, IT companies branches around the world. So yeah, definitely, there is a lot ,a lot, of need in those backgrounds also for this kind of understanding of culture. As I mentioned, I struggled many times in many situations with my cultural intelligence. And I know how important it is to be 'situation smart' how important it is. If you work with colleagues from China or Africa. Born there, educated there or if you need to close a deal, or if you have online cooperation now, how important it is to make sure that you understand people that they understand your retentions. That situations are predictable for you because this means we can be successful as a team. And I will give you just a few hints that relate to collectivism and our Western point of view and our Western expectations about how teams work and how work environments should should be like.

So one of the first things I would like to comment on. Our meetings, believe me I was puzzled many times participating in meetings dominated by collective cultures, when there was just one person, the boss, talking and everybody else was there just looking at their shoes, it was completely opposite to to my perception of good meeting a good behaviour in a meeting. And why is it why people from collective culture sometimes may actually avoid confronting, voicing their opinion, speaking up if they disagree, they just there are there to listen. As you remember, there is this concept of harmony, the concept of respect, the concept of being part of the group not disagree. Some people actually argue that we have all this technological advancement in 20th century and now 21st century because of the US and Western Europe being an individualistic culture, where we actually believe it's good to be ambitious, to show I am different, I am better I can compete, I will show you that I can do better. Where in collective cultures, you are always trying to merge with the group avoid any friction. So here you can also see, for this specific aspect, confrontation, avoidance of confrontation was researched in work environments. And you will see that collective cultures and Indonesia, Thailand and African, Arab cultures actually avoid confrontation. What does it mean how, how I tried to handle some situations? Whenever I was a boss, and I wanted the meeting to get some good results, I sometimes considered leaving the meeting, just giving them an assignment, because I knew that my seniority, even though formal, may actually impact their behaviour and there would be no good outcome. And another hint was that whenever I knew that there was a decision to be taken in a meeting, regardless, if I was leading the meeting, or if I was just participating, I knew it was good to have before the meeting, like my one to one, my private meetings with the people. And then when they knew what they were expected to do, when they knew what they were expected to say, they actually behaved naturally in those meetings, it was no a no discomfort for them. And another thing very important is giving feedback, commenting on outcomes of our work on the results, even on those regular meetings in collective cultures, you may be familiar with this concept of saving face, of the concept of shame in in groups, in tribes, it's very, very important. And to prevent anybody from their, or anybody from being disrespected. Yeah, that's that's like of utmost importance. So this is why in in many cultures, we don't give direct feedback we don't criticise I had to understand read between the lines when actually no or yes, when basically yes means no sometimes no means yes, especially when yes means no, because people would not object, would not criticise in the meeting any anybody's work. Because it would mean just for them to do something very harmful, that could not be actually made up for later. And here you can you can also see a specific research on that topic giving feedback and the again you can notice on the right hand side that collective cultures are the cultures when where we avoid giving direct feedback criticising. So, what can we do? We definitely try to do it in private meetings, we definitely use all kind of, even if it is in the private meeting - down graders and we may on purpose use all kinds of understatement. For example, we are not quite there yet, and of course, the other person will understand this is nowhere close to complete. And very often also I learned that I was just covering the good things and living out the bad and the people would understand the meaning they would understand that the work the results were not accepted. So it's it's very, very sensitive we can do a lot of, we could we could do a lot of, harm actually not respecting those those rules. Another thing I wanted to share with you is power distance. In collective cultures. hierarchy is often accepted. It is accepted that some people in the group may have different rights, different privileges. And there are therefore different expectations regarding the position of Team Leader. In a position of Team Leader, I was supposed to know all the answers, to make decisions without consulting the team. To be maybe, sometimes, to some extent, even authoritarian, and it was, it's sometimes very important to show the status in a way how we dress the car we drive. So it is fine if in Denmark or Sweden a boss cycles to work, but It's unthinkable in China or in an Arab country.

So, um, we need to always remember beyond on the watch out, actually, what are the expectations of our colleagues? What are your habits. And another thing that I also faced myself quite frequently is that in collective cultures, sometimes positions are given, not based on work experience, education, on merits, but based on seniority or even family connections. I had on my team, a girl, she was from Zanzibar, and she was not willing to contribute much to our work our project. And it was partially because she didn't want to, but partially because she didn't have skills. And as you may know, it took me a while to understand like, everybody knew I was the one who didn't understand. And only after a while, I was told that her parents died. And the owner of the business felt responsible for her because he was a close friend to her parents. And she basically knew that she had the job. But she didn't really need to work there. And, you know, you may be frustrated about those things, but it leads you nowhere. So it's better to understand accept that this is how culture works. And those are the values for those people relations are more important than maybe sometimes being efficient at the workplace. And here again, from a workplace, you will see on the left, on the right hand side, again, that cultures which are strongly collective cultures like Peru, India, China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, that those are where hierarchies are accepted. While in Denmark, Sweden, the boss, sometimes when you enter the conference room, it's not easy actually to figure out who is the boss, just a facilitator of meetings. And just to give you more illustration, this is something that I was surprised; that I was expected to know everything and, and here, here are some results of a survey that actually show that people from also strong collectivist cultures here, Spain would be such an example. And Portugal, they believe that their bosses should be able to answer all the questions. So, what is, what is that the thing we can do about it, about this power distance and collective cultures, it's very important to try to understand the dynamics of power distance, and adjust our behaviour adjusted in the way we act. So for example, I knew I couldn't keep any hierarchy in communication, sending an email, for example, it should always be the person at the same level of hierarchy, but mine, otherwise it wouldn't work, it would be even disrespectful. And we need to remember to adjust our behaviours towards our team, but also to adjust our our behaviour towards any business partners. And just we share another example with you. I remember once we had in Oman an American group partners coming and their boss was placed in a different hotel. And the team was placed in a different hotel. Both were five star hotels, but somehow there [Arapost?] wanted to show, to show, that the hierarchy for the boss, and it actually costs lots of logistic problems and Americans were kind of pissed off because they actually enjoyed spending time together. But that was the way a status was seen in in business hierarchies there.

And one more thing is about trust building and task orientation. So in individualistic cultures, we basically believe we have some rules, transparency and relations are built on the rules. And as long as they see that you are open and you share information, we have the same goals we work towards the same goals it should work fine. Why in in collective cultures, relations have nothing to do with rules, they should be built on spending time together, getting to know each other and showing your true face. I once was in, in dinner with some colleagues from China, India and our Asian countries. And next to me was, was my business partner from China and he was pouring wine to my glass like every free minute and I completely lost the notion of how much wine I have been drinking. And and I ask "You all you are going to make me drunk very, very quickly." and he explained "Agnus it's actually a proof that I can trust you because when you are drunk and you are still a good person to be around and and I see that you are a normal person, I know I can trust you in business." And this actually blew my mind I would have never and assumed this kind of thinking. So um, we also should remember that once the relation is built, once the relation is there, people expect flexibility. So if there is anything on paper, and contract, anything has been agreed upon before doesn't matter, because we are in a relation. And in a relation it's most important to take care of each other's needs and businesses and support each other. Rules are of less importance. And here again some illustration from from work, work environment research, and you will again see that collectivist cultures, like Arab, Chinese, Turkish, Brazil, they are more relation based oriented, why we are more task oriented. What does it mean, for me, it meant mostly that I knew I had to dedicate time energy in building those relations, but also setting ground rules regarding time and managing communications from the very, very beginning. Discussing it so we understand everybody understands it and accepts it was really very, very important.

And just the final recent example of how I could experience myself that collective culture mindset that the beautiful students on the picture, I met them in January and February, I taught them some classes. And there were some students who never attended, and this is why they failed. And the behaviour of those students from Ethiopia and Kenya was actually a good example of how collective cultures think Polish students would never argue with this, actually, they would believe "Okay, that is fair, we worked, those guys didn't, and we failed." Why those guys actually during the break and in classes, they tried to coach the girl who failed, and they try to actually approach me and discuss with they would work together but I should set another deadline for her. And that they actually hoped she could still Pass the class. So that was a collective collective mindset. And in many collective cultures, there are proverbs that convey more or less the message that you can see on the slide, strict rules are for foreign people, for our outgroup, while for the inner circle, for our relatives, we can always interpret roles. And, and whenever I work in cross cultural settings, I try to think okay, collective values, individualistic cultural values, but I always try to switch the positions from time to time and remember that when I may get frustrated with people that don't do things the way I want them or don't discuss or don't cooperate or don't deliver on time. And that I should try to look from the perspective the perspective of their values and their priorities. So I am not pushy, I am just goal oriented. Maybe for them, I a, pushy, Because their, their world looks different. And there are many interesting correlations related to individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Just recently, I heard many opinions that individualistic countries, you as the UK, they handle the worst COVID. Because, as you may guess, because we are individuals, we know what to do, we have our opinions, we can rebel, we can have interpretation of what we are told to, we don't respect that much the leaders there. Because we are the same, while the cultures with collective cultures, they actually handled COVID, much, much better.

Thank you so much. As you see, this is actually a topic that, that you could dig deeper and deeper. And I still have probably one minute, I would like to share with you a toolbox that I highly recommend, that are easy to read and will provide you with lots of very kind of like toolbox information, and they probably would be like a great follow up on this lecture if you find it any, any useful. So just that quick sharing of, of the books. So here you can see the Cultural Map by Erin Mayer, a very, very good book, which actually describes step by step different areas of, of teamwork, and how to handle them in cross cultural environments. And another one would be by [unknowm], and I hope I can find it here. Maybe, maybe not. So I would just type it for you. [unknown], if you if you google this author, you definitely find his find his book. If you have any questions. I will be happy to answer now or later. You can also contact me by by email and I wish you the best of luck in being 'situation smart'. In any cross cultural settings interfaces, you may beactually put in.

Thank you so much. Thank you for that. I really like' situation smarts' that really stands out. And for someone like me who has lived and worked in the individual individualistic culture and the collaborative and communicative culture I've seen, like the advantages and disadvantages of both. And so yes, it's very interesting to receive them in this presentation as well.

Thank you so much.

Thank you and wish you all the best for the rest of today's presentation.

Thank you

About the talk

This talk was originally titled "How the Western World culture differs from the rest of the world – the one thing to know to improve cross-cultural co-operation"

The culture of the Western World values individualism, however, 70 percent of the global population lives within cultures characterized by values of collectivism. A deep understanding of the differences between collectivist and individualist mindsets enables building better co-operation within teams. Moreover, it helps to comprehend how the Western culture workplace might be perceived by Asian or African partners – a switch of perspectives is a game-changer for successful cross-cultural teamwork.

About Agnieszka Chęś

Agnieszka Chęś, Ph.D. is a business trainer and consultant, project manager, and assistant professor at WSB University of Torun. Her expertise lies in the theory and practice of cross-cultural communication and its applications in management and marketing. She has been developing cultural intelligence skills for 20 years, through studies, research, and hands-on international work experience. She received an MA degree in Spanish philology from Adam Mickiewicz University, MBA from Aalto University, Doctoral diploma in Cross-cultural Translation and Communication from Universidad de Valladolid, and Doctoral degree in Economics from Poznan University of Business and Economics.

Her practical experience is diverse and interdisciplinary ranging from: working for an American university, leading marketing projects for Turkish, Indian and Chinese markets, serving as head of a marketing operation for a university in Oman, and leading research on Arab consumer behaviour in the Arab Peninsula.

Photo of Agnieszka Chęś

Agnieszka Chęś

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