Corporate Culture vs National Cultures: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Sometime in September, I was one of the trainers of a one week off-site training in Germany. The group of 18 participants was made up of a total of 11 nationalities.

Talk about a diverse group of people.

As a coach, I mostly work with small groups of people or hold one-on-one consultations. So when I have the opportunity as a trainer to be surrounded by such a diverse group in a professional setting, I keep my ears and eyes peeled for little idiosyncrasies that I can learn from.

And of course, I picked up something that I’ll now share with you.

The inclusion challenge 

During the meeting, I paid attention to how everyone was interacting with each other. For example, I noticed how some people asked more questions than others.

In my career, I’ve seen this happen many times. It’s often stereotypical of Westerners to be more vocal while Asians choose to stay quieter in bigger groups. In this situation, this generalisation rang true. I’ve asked several Asian counterparts why this happens, and it’s often credited to the fear of “losing face”. The fear of saying the wrong thing and even possibly giving off the wrong impression. In this case, it just shows how the people in the East value what others think about them more than we in the West do.

The reason why I’m bringing this up is not to point out a flaw in culture. It’s to identify the difference and to acknowledge it. Through this meeting, I’ve come to notice that even with corporate culture being something talked about and implemented, there’s an overarching impact of community culture or national culture that is often not ingrained in the policies or in discussions. Companies that are aiming at encouraging a speak-up culture will have to choose different approaches in different countries to achieve this objective. Just because the employees can agree to the corporate culture and its values statements does not mean that they are going to implement them in the way headquarters designed them.

Tools to improve diversity and inclusion in global teams

We all talk about the beauty and strength of a diverse workforce. Let’s imagine this diversity as a quilt. A beautiful quilt composed of different materials, colours, patches, thickness, structure. The quilt is what we advertise. That’s what we showcase in order to attract more talent.

But what is actually done in most companies is that we take a soft blanket to cover the quilt. I call this the blanket of Western Business Standard. We expect this blanket to fit all and most employees do their best to make it fit for them.

But there is still the quilt underneath. And between those two covers is a gap. 

What happens in this gap?

Unconscious violations of values, expectations that cannot be met, direct communication is perceived to be rude, indirect dialogues as not precise, etc. Plus, not to mention all the pitfalls speaking English as a second language can create.

When this happens, a lot of voices become suppressed. This happens even in companies where everyone is encouraged to “voice out” or “speak their minds”. People who could shine decide to just sit by, follow the rules and get the job done if they’re uncomfortable with having their opinions heard. Some others are vocal while others are too vocal. “Speaking up” can mean two very different things to a German and a Japanese person. All this hesitation leads to inaction. 

Where’s the balance?

And then there are corporate guidelines and missions to “create greater impact”. How is this impact measured? Will the impact of a person who is outspoken and extroverted be more valuable than someone who is quiet and introverted?

Here’s where tools to drive a more inclusive corporate culture come in.

Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Have more dialogues and exchanges – create the space for your diverse teams to have healthy exchanges. Offer a greater variety of tools and activities to gain insights E.g. a verbal interaction for those who are vocal and outspoken and a written feedback form / survey for those who aren’t.
  1. Host workshops – talk about these differences. Where human resources departments can hold important conversations and classes on sexual harassment and job equality, why can’t there be workshops about cultural nuances and intercultural communication? Without being culturally insensitive, talk about the differences in culture and how they can be used to strengthen the team and the company.
  1. Incorporate global guidelines with a local viewpoint – does your company have three locations across the world? Great. Have global guidelines for your corporate culture but incorporate cultural etiquette for each team. In fact, go the extra mile and share these little details with your team across the world so everyone understands and is aligned on the same corporate mission.

Have you found yourself in a situation where your culture and upbringing didn’t allow you to take full advantage of a situation? Tell me about it.

Let’s discuss how you can use your culture to bring more to the table.