Thursday, November 30, 2006

Challenges of Working Across Cultures

In the last several articles I have written about benefits of cultural diversity, the need for cultural diversity and how to manage cultural diversity in an organization. Today, almost all companies in Silicon Valley have embraced cultural diversity and have learnt to thrive in a culturally diverse world. But outside the silicon valley, American companies are yet to understand the impact of cultural diversity - let alone manage cultural diversity.

Recently, I was talking to a senior executive at an American company based in Austin, Texas. This company has drawn up ambitious plans to expand operations in Bangalore, India. Few months ago, the company setup an office and started staffing up its Indian operations for a major R&D project. Within months problems arose - managers were unable to resolve the conflicts between its Indian team members and their American counterparts. The collaborative work environment collapsed into a battle zone. The CEO was then informed about this problem rushed into Bangalore to take stock of the situation. But even his intervention would probably fail to stem the rot and the company may have to start its operations all over again.

The problem here was mainly of cultural integration issues - I had briefly touched upon it in my previous articles titled "Offshoring Requires Better Collaboration", " Challenges in Offshoring to India"& "Challenges of Multi-Cultural Teams". In this case the problem was much deeper and was deeply rooted into the "Texas Style" of business. Since I lived in Texas for a long period of time and also in Bangalore, I was quickly able to root cause the problem as the one caused by cultural conflicts that can be attributed to:

  • Ethnocentrism
  • Parochial Attitude
Ethnocentrism and Parochial attitude is the result of interaction with a different culture. Managers who are often sent abroad have little knowledge or experience in dealing with a foreign culture. As a result, these expat managers tend to respond to cultural differences which can be called as "Ethnocentrism" and "Parochial Attitude"


Ethnocentrism results when managers recognize the differences in cultures - but have a tendency to think that their culture and their way of doing things is the right way, their way of doing things is the only way and their way of doing things is the best way. Any deviation from their culture or from their way of doing things is seen as "distortion" or as a "mistake" or as "Wrong way".

Most people have the tendency to follow ethnocentrism. Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Germans, French, Scandinavians, and Russians are more prone to ethnocentrism than other cultures - when compared to other Asians, Latin Americans, British, Australians, Africans and Indians. ( I do not have a scientific evidence to prove this - but the above statement is based from my experience.)

Ethnocentrism is often ingrained into almost all cultures. Every dominant culture tends to think of itself as the center of the world. For example, the word "China" means the middle kingdom. At the height of the Chinese empire, China truly believed that China was indeed the middle kingdom and even the Japanese, Koreans and Cambodia - all referred to China as the middle kingdom. The British empire drew the modern world maps with the Zero longitude passing through London - thus making England as the center of the world. US today refers to non-Americans as "Aliens" - a term which shows the ethnocentric attitude.

Parochial Attitude

Parochial attitude refers to a persons inability to see cultural differences. This is exactly the opposite of ethnocentrism.

Managers who are sent abroad often meet people who are also dressed in suits and speak their language - this prompts them to ignore all other cultural differences and make them think that all others are "just like us". In today’s business world, most people tend to dress similarly - in suits or other formulas and talk in English, But this does not mean that all people have the same culture - but people often only see the surface and assume that the other person shares the same cultural values.

Expat managers from US/UK often tend to display a strong parochial attitude - mainly because the people with whom they interact on regular basis can speak English and are dressed similarly in suits or western dresses.

Impact on Businesses

Often times, expat managers tend to display both parochial attitude and ethnocentrism at the same time. Problems in the organization are often blamed on cultural differences or on the culture of the local employees while successes are attributed to the culture/practices at the head office.

The inability of the managers to recognize the benefits of cultural differences puts these expat managers in a constant state of cultural blindness which at first seems to have no negative impact on the organization. On the contrary, by failing to recognize cultural differences, organizations and managers initially succeed abroad. This initial success is often due to the fact that the local employees tend to play the role of a gracious host - and accommodate the demands of the expat manager. But over a longer period, local employees tend to settle down to their usual practices and that's when the expat managers find it difficult to manage.

Parochial Attitude and Ethnocentrism together tend to pull off a 1-2 punch on the expat managers. The problems/failures are often blamed on the local culture while successes are attributed to the expat’s culture. This demotivates local employees and trouble starts in the local operations. Parochial attitude forces the expat managers to ignore local culture and in the process his/her behavior would have offended local sensibilities - thus creating discontent among the local staff.

Companies - especially MNCs tend to openly display their Parochial Attitude and Ethnocentrism. Examples of this are:
  1. Use of common company wide HR policies
  2. Use of common operating procedures
  3. Use of common posters, advertisements and other PR material

Closing Thoughts

Companies which are newly going global or expanding into a new country have to be on the guard against some of the common management mistakes - Parochial Attitude and Ethnocentrism. The problems faced by expat managers are often blamed on the local employees - without fully understanding the true situation. This results in several false starts, misguided efforts and wasted resources.

Even established global companies tend to suffer from Parochial Attitude and Ethnocentrism from time to time. This is mainly because the expat managers who are sent to manage the local operations are not fully briefed or aware of the impact of culture on business operations.

The best solution to this problem is to create awareness among all managers. Both expat managers, company bosses in the head offices, and local employees must have a good understanding of each other’s cultures and have a working plan to benefit from this cultural differences. Often times, the managers and top executives are so busy working on operational issues - that they might be better off hiring external consultants/coaches who can guide them though this maze of cultural differences and bring out the best from that organization.

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1 comment:

marry said...

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