I’ve worked in a variety of very multicultural teams. It is always interesting to see the dynamics of how it works (or doesn’t work). I’m also doing a module on multicultural leadership, which has given some interesting insights about what perhaps has been going on when things fell apart. Being one of the few Cambodian speakers in one team team, I managed to gain some interesting views from both sides: the Cambodian staff and the foreign staff. One fascinating situation that seemed to cause problems were staff meetings. I heard both these phrases said quite a few times in different ways:
- “Cambodians never offer any ideas! They show no initiative.”
- “The foreigners never listen to our ideas. Our opinions don’t matter.”
It was hard to know what to do about this and find the root of the problem. Looking at some cultural aspects has been really helpful. Hopefully, if you’ve heard either of these or even said them yourself, you will find this helpful.
Purpose of meetings
Some of the problems arise because different cultures have different expectations of what staff meetings should look like. These are some questions that perhaps can be asked:
- Are meetings for discussion and the mutual sharing of ideas, resources and knowledge?
- Are meetings for the dissemination of information and sharing of instructions and directives from those in leadership?
- Should discussion of ideas happen outside of a meeting context (i.e. before)?
- Does each individual have a responsibility to share their own opinions?
- Does one person have the responsibility to share the opinions of the group (i.e. a team leader represents their team)?
- Do attendees have a responsibility to participate?
- Do attendees have a responsibility to listen and accept decisions?
- Can the meeting leader be interrupted and corrected?
- Should mistakes, problems or corrections be addressed in another context?
When you realise that different cultures may say “yes” and “no” (or even “sometimes”) to different questions, you start to see where these problems can arise. People in the same meeting may arrive with different expectations of what should happen. The answer to these questions will be affected by certain cultural values. Therefore, these decision will have been made already by their cultural context, rather than perhaps attempts to create a certain organisational culture. So it helps to be aware of dynamics and factors that might influence expectations.
High power and low power distance
All cultures have ideas about power and how power and authority should be structured. Hofstede uses a scale he calls the Power Distance Index:
This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people.Hofstede Insights
There are some interesting aspects of that definition and I could discuss it word by word. Don’t worry; I won’t. However, I will explain it. High power distance contexts accept that there is a large gap in power between leaders and subordinates. Japan and South Korea, for example, have a high power distance. Low power distance is that the distance between leaders and subordinates is minimised (sometimes to the point of almost becoming non-existent). The US and Netherlands will fit in here.
Meyers defines it in terms of egalitarian (low power distance) and hierarchical (high power distance). It’s quite easy for those from an egalitarian culture to assume that it’s the best, most honouring option. (But, as my lecturer said, you are enacting a power imbalance if you are force those from a hierarchical culture to become ‘egalitarian’. Therefore, you might not be as egalitarian as you originally thought.)
Whichever terms you use or prefer, these concepts will impact how meetings are conducted. Low power distance contexts will probably have a more discussion based meeting, where opinions are offered, decisions are discussed and challenged and ideas are proposed. In a high power distance it is the leaders’ responsibility to come up with ideas, make plans and decide which option is best for all. If the meeting leader is from a hierarchical context, the participants might find their approach too autocratic and bossy. If the meeting leader is from an egalitarian context, the participants who come from hierarchical contexts might wonder why the leader is abdicating responsibility and asking them to do their job by asking for their ideas.
Individualism vs. collectivism
I’ve written about this before, but it has an implication in meeting contexts, too. It also interplays as well with the power distance aspect of culture. In some cultures there will be representative for a particular group. This may be a middle-man between those in higher and lower status positions. Or it could just be someone with a relationship between groups.
Individualists will hear one person offering an opinion and only think “oh, only one person thinks this.” However, if this person is from a collectivistic context, they may actually be speaking on behalf of a whole group. This would be more likely in where there is a clear hierarchy. Those lower in the hierarchy may not feel able to speak directly to someone much higher than them. They may need to rely on someone in-between them and the boss to speak on their behalf. Therefore, it is important to know whether the opinion is just theirs or if it is shared by others.
A comparison of cultures
These are potential out-workings of how these cultural differences might appear in meetings. These are hypothetical cultures, although may resonate with cultures you have worked with. Cambodia is definitely more like culture 2, but it would be good to get a Cambodian’s perspective on this rather than make assumptions. But this is just to show you how there could be highly conflicting expectations.
|Culture 1: egalitarian and individualistic||Culture 2: hierarchical and collectivistic|
|Meetings can be a time to discuss ideas, plans and share opinions.||Meetings are a time for leaders to give instructions and information.|
|It is fine to interrupt the leader to ask clarifying questions or make suggestions.||The leader’s responsibility is to make the decisions and to think of all the factors.|
|All members can participate.||You should listen to those senior to you.|
|You should voice your own concerns, ideas and feelings.||It is a middle manager’s responsibility to share the consensus of their team to the boss.|
|Public discussion is preferred so others it is clear if others agree or not.||Discussion should not happen in an open format, to avoid appearing critical.|
Let’s go one step further, and see how these expectations could play out.
|Leader (culture 1)||Response of staff (culture 2)||Consequences|
|Asks for suggestions from the staff.||Staff reticent to share, as they are not willing to take responsibility for decisions made.||Leader assumes that the staff don’t care, are unimaginative or show no initiative. Staff feel as if they are put under undue pressure.|
|Task not communicated something clearly.||Staff do not ask for clarifications, especially in a public setting, and therefore do not do the task correctly.||Leader frustrated that no one asked for clarification, or, worse, thinks their staff is incompetent.|
|Leads meeting as a workshop or with interactive activities to foster participation.||Staff do not get involved and wait for the ‘correct answer’.||Leader frustrated at the stubbornness or unwillingness of the staff. Staff feel under pressure to perform in front of their leader.|
|Leader asks whether the staff are in agreement.||The representative of the group voices concern and disagreement.||The leader interprets it as only one member of staff having concerns whilst the rest are happy with it. The staff feel like they are not heard.|
|Leader criticises suggestion from staff.||The staff member will be mortified. The rest of the staff will be embarrassed about the situation.||Relationship with the leader will be potentially damaged with all staff from culture 2. Staff will be even more reluctant to share in future.|
Again, these are only hypothetical scenarios, that involve two hypothetical cultures. Cambodians might not necessarily think in this way. Also, we must remember that all Cambodians are also individuals. They aren’t exact carbon copies of each other, so some might behave more ‘typically Cambodian’ than others and they will do this in different ways. But you can perhaps see how the two opposing sides of the story that I mentioned at the start of the post could come about. Therefore, leaders need to be aware of the cultural nuances of what they are dealing with and the implications it might have in different situations. Also, it’s a helpful reminder that in every situation, you will have a set of expectations and these expectations may be different to those around you.
- The Culture Map by Erin Meyers.
- Leading Across Cultures by James E. Plueddemann