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Dealing with managers from various cultural backgrounds
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Dealing with managers from various cultural backgrounds

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A successful relationship with one’s manager results in satisfaction at work, chances of growth and increased pay, and general happiness. Conversely, a poor relationship with your manager can ...

A successful relationship with one’s manager results in satisfaction at work, chances of growth and increased pay, and general happiness. Conversely, a poor relationship with your manager can inhibit a person’s chances of success at work, and will most likely lead to frustration and stress which can also affect other areas of life. While developing good rapport with your manager, the cultural differences may come in between hampering a successful relationship. This article will provide some proven tips to successfully work with managers from different cultural backgrounds and respond effectively in various inter-cultural work situations commonly occurring between a manager and employee of differing cultures.

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Dealing with managers from various cultural backgrounds Dealing with managers from various cultural backgrounds Presentation Transcript

  • R. Attri Professional Effectiveness Series, Paper No. 4, May 2010 Copyrights © 2011 S. Venkatesan / Raman K. Attri DEALING WITH MANAGERS FROM VARIOUS CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS SRIMAN VENKATESAN RAMAN K. ATTRI A successful relationship with one’s manager results in satisfaction at work, chances of growth and increased pay, and general happiness. Conversely, a poor relationship with your manager can inhibit a person’s chances of success at work, and will most likely lead to frustration and stress which can also affect other areas of life. While developing good rapport with your manager, the cultural differences may come in between hampering a successful relationship. This article will provide some proven tips to successfully work with managers from different cultural backgrounds and respond effectively in various inter-cultural work situations commonly occurring between a manager and employee of differing cultures. HOW DOES IT MATTER – THE IMPACT OF CULTURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR MANAGER An American manager once asked his Japanese secretary to book a flight for his travel from one city to another. The secretary responded after doing some research, “Sir, perhaps you would prefer to take the train." The boss said, "No, I would like to take a flight." The secretary became a little discomfited and replied, "There are many other ways to go." The boss said "Maybe, but I WANT to fly." The secretary became even more uncomfortable and she said, "It would very difficult". The manager grew increasingly irritated until he realized that there were no flights between those two cities and the Japanese secretary was merely trying to convey that fact to him in a manner that she considered appropriate. # A British boss once asked his new, young American employee if he would like to have a lunch with him each day. The employee was happy at this opportunity to build a rapport with his manager and responded enthusiastically, “Yeah that would be great!” The boss’ expression immediately turned stern and he walked away saying, "With that kind of attitude, you might as well forget about your job!" The employee was bewildered and shocked at this. Later, when he calmed down and checked with his colleagues, he realized that, in England saying "Yeah" in that context is seen as rude and disrespectful.# # Examples are courtesy of an untraceable source. The above real-world examples show that cultural differences between you and your manager can have a real impact on your work and career and cannot be simply laughed off. You might unwittingly offend your manager or lose his/her trust. You should consider yourself lucky if a cultural difference results in merely a funny incident. In the worst case, cultural differences can result in major blunders that can even lead to loss of jobs for completely avoidable reasons. Take for example the simple issue of eye contact. Making direct eye contact with a superior is generally considered rude in Asian cultures. For American managers, lack of eye contact is a sign of untrustworthiness. Imagine the consequence if an American manager and an Asian employee meet without an understanding of cultural differences. The world is a diverse place and people come with different cultural backgrounds, mental orientations and prejudices. We are now living in an age of globalization and outsourcing. People are routinely thrown into situations where they have to interact with colleagues and customers from other countries. Given this scenario, it is perfectly possible - even probable -that you may have a manager whose background is totally different from your own. One of the authors has worked for managers from over ten different nationalities in a period of less than five years within the same multi-national company. Sometimes adjusting to managers from different cultural backgrounds and management styles can be difficult or even frustrating, but it is a crucial skill that has to be learnt –especially in the context of today’s world. In the next section, we will present a few general, broad-
  • R. Attri Professional Effectiveness Series, Paper No. 4, May 2010 Copyrights © 2011 S. Venkatesan / Raman K. Attri based strategies for dealing with managers of different cultural backgrounds. Note that, here we are not talking about different management styles. We are confining our attention to the effect of cultural differences. Even within the same culture, there can be managers of different styles. GENERAL STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH MANAGERS OF DIFFERENT CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS In order to have a successful relationship with a manager whose background is very different from your own, you first need to understand and accept the differences. A very common mistake is to expect other people to think the way you do. Recognizing that other people can have perspectives very different from your own is the first step towards developing a good relationship. In fact, it is these differences that make the world a beautiful place to live in. Celebrate these differences instead of being resentful or scornful of them. In any case, you cannot get your manager to change his/her perspectives simply by being resentful. Don’t wonder why people act the way they do. Just accept them as they are. This raises the obvious question – how to understand the differences between you and your manager? The best way to do this is by due diligence – doing your research ahead of time and talking to colleagues or mentors who know better, or who are from the same culture as your manager. The Internet has a wealth of information on how to deal with cross-cultural differences. If you are part of a LinkedIn group, you can post a question in a discussion forum. If you are still not sure, you can get a clarification straight from the horse’s mouth - ask your manager in a gentle manner. For example, you might say, “In my culture, we use our finger to point to things. I hope this habit of mine is not considered offensive in your culture”. This is a very straightforward and honest approach that can put both of you at ease with each other. Remember, it is possible that your manager is concerned about hurting you culturally as you are concerned about hurting him. When you do your research on your manager’s culture, pay attention to the following aspects of his/her culture:  Communication styles and greetings: Americans tend to be very open and forthright in their communication. Japanese prefer an indirect and respectful way of communication, avoiding direct negative responses. Americans tend to address people by first name, irrespective of their job title. They also expect others to do the same. In Asian cultures, addressing a senior executive by first name could quickly lead the employee out of the company. Also, try to understand the role of humor in your manager’s culture. Does your manager’s culture consider humor a healthy part of everyday work or is humor at work considered silly and fatuous? In any case, completely avoid any humor that might sound racist or abusive. Also, every culture has specific slang terms and colloquialisms.  How meetings are perceived in that culture: Managers from different cultures tend to view meetings differently. According to John W. Adams in Guide to Living & Working Abroad, in Germany a meeting is a vehicle for a manager to exchange information. Employees are expected to be well prepared and do not expect to be questioned or challenged. For British and Dutch managers, it could be a forum for debate ideas and come up with a recommendation and an action plan. Every employee the meeting is expected to make a contribution. In France, a meeting is for the boss to announce decisions which have been made elsewhere or to solicit specific information. It is not a forum for debate.  Significance of gestures: The same gesture can mean very different things in different cultures. A harmless sign like the thumbs-up has a very negative meaning for Iranians. Pointing fingers is considered rude by Chinese. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a universal form of communication. Take the simple gesture of a smile. It is not unusual for Americans to exchange smiles with complete strangers. In India, smiling at unknown female employees can be considered risqué.  General work and food habits (especially lunch): In India, it is very common to see people arriving late for work and leaving late. In Germany, people start and end work punctually at the stated times
  • R. Attri Professional Effectiveness Series, Paper No. 4, May 2010 Copyrights © 2011 S. Venkatesan / Raman K. Attri and weekend work is unheard of. Suppose you are in a meeting with Dutch or Danish associates and it gets to be lunchtime. If you break off and go to a good restaurant, they will think you are not serious about the business. They prefer a sandwich and a glass of mineral water. On the other hand, if you are meeting with French or Spanish associates, and you offer them a sandwich instead of going to a restaurant, they will feel offended and think you're not serious.  How the manager-employee relationship is generally perceived in that culture: In some Asian cultures like Thailand, an employee is expected to obey his/her manager without any debate or challenge. In the US, it is perfectly normal for employees to challenge and debate with their managers on operational aspects. It is worth investing time on learning these important things. After all, having a great relationship with your boss translates into a better work life, a better career and probably higher pay, so why not do your homework? Make yourself aware of some gestures that may have unique meanings in your manager’s culture. Other way is also true in case you find that your manager has least the idea about different cultural notions of your culture. Subtly and slowly educate him too. Good idea would be to call him for some family events or gathering but brief him about customer before the event and possibly coach a bit during the event. Also, bear in mind that everyone carries some cultural baggage in their mind. For example, a person may have a stereotyped image of people of a certain country or culture based on hearsay. If your manager is from a different country or culture, you might be at the receiving end of such stereotyping. While this is unfortunate and completely unfair, getting emotional and aggressive will not make things better. By being angry and demanding respect, you will only lower yourself in your manager’s opinion. The only way to handle such stereotyping is to keep your cool and earn respect through solid performance and results. Think about your own opinions and mental stereotypes. You probably developed them over years – maybe they were handed to you by your parents or family. Is it reasonable to expect your manager to discard his/her cultural baggage just because you are not willing to accept it? Try to command rather than demand respect. If your manager is openly racist or abusive to the point that it affects your performance, or if you are concerned that your manager’s stereotyping can affect your career prospects, you do not have to take it lying down. Most companies have clear policies against racism. Talk to a HR manager or a mentor whom you trust. If racism is deeply embedded in your company’s culture and you are a victim, then you are probably better off trying to find another job. A FEW SPECIFIC TIPS FOR DEALING WITH MANAGERS FROM DIFFERENT CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS  Be honest and keep your word: This is a really simple thing, but honesty is one language that is universally understood and appreciated. Do not try to be extra nice and make promises you cannot keep- even in small things. Remember that punctuality is a subset of honesty. Even if you don’t understand your manager a bit culturally, rest assured that you will have his/her respect if you consistently deliver value as promised.  Do not be condescending or patronizing towards people who are from countries less developed compared to your own. By the same token, do not excessively fawn over people who are from more affluent societies. Everyone, irrespective of his/her background, job title, wealth, or skin color is a human first and deserves to be treated with respect and courtesy.  Don’t overdo it: Good manners are very important. However, do not be excessively apologetic or thankful.  Watch what you say: A few years back, over a team lunch in the US, one of our colleagues was discussing a joke he had seen on television the previous evening. In an episode of the popular TV show Seinfeld, he had seen a grumpy character who was nicknamed the “Soup Nazi”. What he did not realize was that one of the people in the table
  • R. Attri Professional Effectiveness Series, Paper No. 4, May 2010 Copyrights © 2011 S. Venkatesan / Raman K. Attri was a German, and the reference to the Nazi did not go well with him, since Germans are very sensitive about their pre-World War II history. You cannot offend your boss like this without inviting unpleasant consequences for yourself! The golden rule is to completely avoid anything that might sound sarcastic, racist or offensive. Often, we talk about something which we consider humorous and perfectly harmless. However, what is harmless humor for us could be very offensive for a person from a different culture.  Respect yourself and your own culture: Every culture and every individual has merits and deserves respect. Avoid putting down your own culture in order to sound flattering to a person from another culture. Accept and respect yourself for who you are. For example, if you are non- alcoholic, you need not feel shy and apologetic when everyone else is having beer at a team dinner. SUMMARY 1. Cultural differences between you and your manager can have a real impact on your work and career and cannot be simply laughed off. 2. Understand and accept the differences instead of being resentful or questioning “why?” 3. Do your research on cultural differences ahead of time. Pay attention to the following:  Communication styles and greetings  How meetings are perceived in that culture  Significance of gestures  General work and food habits (especially lunch)  How the manager-employee relationship is generally perceived in that culture 4. Remember that everyone carries some cultural baggage in their mind. 5. If you feel that your manager is being unreasonable and that his/her cultural bias is affecting your work and career seek help from HR or from a mentor you trust. 6. A few specific tips:  Be honest and keep your word  Respect yourself and your own culture  Politeness is important, but don’t overdo it  Watch what you say  Do not be condescending or patronizing About Authors Sriman Venkatesan is a training professional with a strong interest in business psychology. His global work experience spans across the US, India, Singapore and Taiwan. He is a keen observer of human behavior and is passionate about enabling people to work at their best. Over the course of his career, he has worked with over ten different managers from various backgrounds and nationalities. This diverse experience has motivated him to share his learning in the form of this book. Sriman has a Masters in engineering from the Ohio State University in the USA (with a University Fellowship award) and an MBA from Alagappa University, India. He also holds an Advanced Certification in Training and Assessment. He is also a member of the Singapore Training and Development Association. He regularly writes blogs on best practices in training delivery. He can be contacted at: srimanv@gmail.com, Blog: http://corporatetrainingexcellence.blogspot.sg/ LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/srimanvenkatesan Raman K. Attri is Global Learning and Training Consultant. He has over 15 years of project management, product development and quality management experience in leading MNC product development corporations. He has earned numerous international certification awards - Certified Management Consultant Certified Quality Director, Certified Engineering Manager and Certified Project Director, to name a few. He holds Professional Doctorate, MBA in Operations Management and Master in Technology and Bachelor in Technology. In addition to this, he has over 60 educational qualifications, credentials and certifications in his name. His research and training interests are in learning, development, performance management, research management and product development. He can be contacted at: E-mail: rkattri@rediffmail.com Website: http://rkattri.wordpress.com LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/rkattri/