Cultural differences… And how to not let them become an issue!

Updated: Oct 11

When working with people from different cultural backgrounds, we sometimes think we can work together just like we do with people from the same village. Culture and particularly cultural differences are considered too little, and we do not realize them until it might be too late. A quote that underlines the importance of culture by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner goes like this:


"A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. It sustains us. We live and breathe through it." [1]


This post talks about:

· What culture is and why it is essential for a supply chain

· Different cultural models

· Scales

· Key take-aways


What’s culture, and why is it essential for a supply chain


The center for advanced research on language acquisition defines culture as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group [2]. In today's global economy, it is essential to be aware of cultural differences, especially in the interaction between buyer and customer. Supplier development activities cover many different aspects of how people interact with each other. These aspects range from communication, which plays an essential role in almost every interaction, to giving feedback, leading a group of people from different cultural backgrounds, mutual trust, and supposedly simpler things like scheduling. Being aware of the differences along these dimensions can significantly improve the way team members interact and perceive each other. Researchers such as Geert Hofstede and Erin Meyer have developed a model based on scales to compare cultures.


Cultural models


There are multiple models out there of how to compare cultures. For the sake of this blog, we will take a quick look at Geert Hofstede’s but dive a little deeper into Erin Meyer’s model. Hofstede tries to understand cultural differences between modern nations along dimensions that represent different answers to universal problems of human societies. On the other hand, Meyer focuses more on interactions between individuals, which is a crucial factor in the effective functioning of teams, which is obviously very important when working in an international supply chain.


Hofstede’s 6 dimensions are:

1. Power Distance Index

2. Individualism vs. Collectivism

3. Masculinity vs. Femininity

4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index

5. Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation

6. Indulgence vs. Restraint


Erin Meyers 8 scales are:

1. Communicating

2. Evaluating

3. Persuading

4. Leading

5. Deciding

6. Trusting

7. Disagreeing

8. Scheduling


Let’s have a deeper look at each of Erin Meyer’s scales. We will discuss each scale in greater detail and see where a specific culture is along that scale. We will consider the following cultures for that:




Communicating


The two ends of the spectrum for communicating are low-context and high-context. Low context means that good communication is precise, simple, and clear. Repetition is appreciated when it contributes to the clarity of communication. High-context, on the other side, considers sophisticated, nuanced, and layered communication as good. Messages must be understood both orally and in writing between the lines; thus, they are often implied but not clearly expressed [3]. While Asian countries are very much to the right side (high-context), Austria is more towards the middle and Germany further the left side (low-context).


Evaluating


The two ends of the spectrum for evaluating are direct negative feedback and indirect negative feedback. On the one side, negative feedback is given openly, directly, honestly, and sincerely, stands on its own, and is not mitigated by positive feedback. Absolute terms (e.g., totally inappropriate) are often used when criticizing, and criticism may be directed to an individual in front of a group. Conversely, negative feedback is given softly, subtly, diplomatically in private and is often packaged by positive feedback [3]. This scale again shows a significant gap between German-speaking countries Germany and Austria, and Asian countries. The German-speaking countries tend to give more direct feedback than the Asian countries, which give feedback very cautiously.


Persuading


The two ends of the spectrum for persuading are principle-first and applications-first. On the principles-first side, people are educated to start with facts, statements, or opinions and only later add concepts to support the conclusion as needed. The preferred way is to start a message or report with a summary or bullet points and discussions practically and concretely [3]. On the applications-first side, individuals are educated to develop a theory or concept before presenting facts, statements, or opinions. The preferred way to start a message or report is by building up a theoretical argument before moving on to a conclusion [3]. Asian cultures have holistic thought patterns, neither applications-first nor principles-first, thus are not plotted on the persuading scale [3]. Meyer explains that applications-first and principles-first only applies to western environments.


Leading


The two ends of the spectrum for leading are egalitarian and hierarchical. Egalitarian stands for the fact that there is almost no distance between an employee and a superior. The boss is a mediator between peers, corporate structures are flat, and communication can skip hierarchical layers [3]. In contrast to hierarchical, where the distance between the employee and the boss is great, the boss is a strong director leading from the front, and the organizational structures are firm and multi-layered with a clear line of communication [3]. Here the distance between the German-speaking and Asian cultures is not as great as on other scales; in fact, both cultures are more similar than any other scale.


Deciding


The two ends of the spectrum for deciding are consensual and top-down. Consensual means that decisions are made in groups by unanimous decision, whereas top-down means that individuals, usually the boss, make decisions [3]. This graph is quite mixed. Japan is to the left, followed by Vietnam and Germany in the same position, while Austria, Singapore, China, and Thailand keep on walking toward the right side of the spectrum.


Trusting


The two ends of the spectrum for trusting are task-based and relationship-based. Trust is essential in a business environment, especially when dealing with over a long time. Germans, stronger than Austrians, build trust based on business-oriented actions. That means one consistently does a good job and is reliable, which is why people like to work with and trust one another. Asian cultures build trust through sharing meals and evening drinks; thus, relationships build up slowly over a long time [3]. I have experienced who you are on a profound level; I have spent private time with you, I know others who trust you, and that is why I trust you. Again, German-speaking cultures are far apart from Asian cultures. It is clear that Austrians are somewhat more like Asians than Germans; however, this can also be used to one's advantage as a unifying element of both extremes.


Disagreeing


The two ends of the spectrum for disagreeing are confrontational and avoids confrontation. Confrontational consider disagreement and debate as positive for the team and the entire organization and will not negatively affect the relationship. While avoiding confrontation means that disagreements and debates are seen as negative for the team and the organization, open confrontation is inappropriate and hurts group harmony and the relationship [3]. Again, a massive gap between German-speaking and Asian cultures can be observed.


Scheduling


The two ends of the spectrum for scheduling are linear-time and flexible-time. Linear-time is a sequential approach of project steps where one task is completed before the next one is begun. There are no interruptions with a focus on the deadline and sticking to the schedule; the focus is on promptness and good organization rather than flexibility [3]. On the other side of the spectrum, the project steps are approached fluidly, with tasks changing according to opportunities. Several things are done at once, and interruptions are accepted. The emphasis is on adaptability, and flexibility is valued higher than the organization [3]. This scale is quite mixed. Japanese and Singaporeans are more like Austrians and Germans, while other Asian cultures like China, Vietnam, and Thailand are on the other side of the spectrum.


Key take-aways


Cultural differences are vast and range from handing over a business card to what is considered late, rude, or false modesty. When exposed to a new culture, one will make mistakes, and that's ok; your counterpart will forgive you. The essential skills are openness and the willingness to reflect. When confronted with strange behavior, those who show interest and openness can deal with them in an unprejudiced way. Be prepared to scrutinize your own behavior and cultural background. How do my actions and words affect others? Being aware of the differences makes it easier for you to respond to them.

Taking a quick glimpse at the scales we discussed might, of course, also be very helpful.


Are you experiencing difficulties working with your supplier, or are you a supplier, and it's difficult for you to make your customer accept your way of doing business? Do you feel that the supplier does not understand what you want him to do and what should be delivered, e.g., compliant documentation? Contact us today, and we'll take the burden off your shoulders and help you make your supply chain compliant.



References

[1] Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (1997). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

[2] https://carla.umn.edu/culture/definitions.html

[3] Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. PublicAffairs.

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