Culture Clashes

Jan 29, 2014 1 Min Read

Listen to the new breed of international managers and you will soon be overwhelmed by their acronyms. They want an efficient SBU that is run using TQM, with stock delivered JIT, and CFT’s distributing to customers whilst subject to MBOs. If this does not take place, they will use BPR to achieve the company’s objectives!

The question is – just how true are these management solutions? Are these “truths” about what effective management really is, truths that can be applied anywhere, under any circumstances?

Even in experienced international companies, many well intended “universal” applications of management theory have turned out badly. For example, pay-for-performance has in many instances been a failure on the African continent because there are particular, although unspoken, rules about the sequence and timing of reward and promotions. Similarly, management-by-objective schemes have failed in southern Europe because managers have not wanted to conform to the abstract nature of policy guidelines.

Even the notion of human resource management is difficult to translate into other cultures, coming as it does from a typically Anglo-Saxon doctrine. It borrows from economics the idea that human beings are resources, like physical and monetary resources, and tends to assume almost unlimited capacities for individual development.

Yes indeed, international managers and employees have it tough. They need to operate on a number of different premises at any one time. They have to contend with their culture of origin, the culture of the country in which they are working, as well as the culture of the organisation for whom they are working.

Those readers who are married might argue that it is impossible to understand someone of their own culture, never mind a person from the other end of the world. So what do we do? How do we cope in this melting pot of diversity?

According to Trompenaars and hampden-Turner, there are three universal dilemmas or problems facing every organisation and indeed every country:

·Relationships with people

·Relationships to time

·Relationships between people and their natural environment.

Put slightly differently – culture is the way in which a group of people solve the problems and dilemmas stated above. Understanding how a culture responds to these fundamental issues, will help to contextualise behaviours and provide a platform that will hopefully allow for backdrop for understanding.

East versus West

An American CEO engaged in negotiations with a Japanese firm, exchanged polite greetings with his Japanese opposite number, a ritual which the American felt had gone on too long!

At last, in the meeting, it appeared that they are getting to the root of the problem. The Japanese president was being evasive and ducking all the straight questions. He kept replying that “with goodwill and sincerity,” all such questions could be satisfactorily answered. As part of the greeting ceremony, the parties had exchanged meishi(business cards). The American had laid the cards out on the table in front of him in the same pattern as the seating arrangements, allowing him to call each delegate by name.

As the meeting grew more stressful, and his impatience with the evasiveness of the answers heightened, he picked up one of the cards, rolled it into a cylinder, unrolled it, and began absent-mindedly cleaning his nails! Suddenly he felt the horrified eyes of the entire Japanese delegation on him. There was a long pause, after which the Japanese president stood up and withdrew from the room.

The American looked at the battered meishi in his hand – it belonged to the Japanese president. Had the American CEO remembered that the Japanese rarely answer directly, like to build relationships, and that the meishi is aligned and symbolic of the status of the person as well as the relationship being created – he would probably not have mangled the meishi, let alone whilst the person was watching!

It is customary for Koreans to exchange gifts in business. A western representative kept refusing the offers, fearing that he was being bribed. The Koreans were merely following their custom to present a gift, and kept providing bigger and more expensive presents as they thought that the gifts that they had offered were not good enough!


When entering a lift in Africa, men would move past any women at the front to enter first. In most cultures, this would appear downright rude! In African culture – the man must prepare the way and ensure that it is safe for women to follow. African people speak very loudly even at close quarters. This seems to be intrusive and irritating to others, unless you understand that they simply want everyone to know that they are not gossiping or being secretive.

So how do we reconcile these differences?

Some famous authors contend that there are issues and cultures like the French and women that are just not meant to be understood – try as we may! The best we can do is research the culture that we are trying to understand. We need to compare and contrast the elements of behaviour with our own, in an attempt to grasp the underlying intentions of what we are experiencing.

Actions may not always be what they seem as I have indicated by the examples in this article. We need to be more self-aware of our own actions, and prepare to open our minds to different and often interesting ways of how others make sense of our world.

One thing that rarely fails is the use of humour and a genuine smile. If we have made an error, we need to be able to admit it, apologise, and move forward. Hopefully we will all be able to have a good laugh at our differences as we learn more about each other and our humanity through communication and sharing.

We live in an ever diminishing global village that requires that we be more compassionate, cooperative, and compromising. As with most of the more difficult things in life, we need to engage in continuous learning and self-improvement to be prepared to face and understand challenges and turn them into opportunities or great experiences.

Debbie Pozzobon believes that diversity, if correctly managed, is a source of great innovation that allows organisations to successfully compete on the global stage. Click here for more articles.

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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