Do Cultural Boundaries Exist?

November 14, 2011 Simon Leadership Development

Anyone who works for a global organization will be familiar with the issue of working across cultural boundaries but my provocative question is; do they really exist? And moreover, to what extent do these boundaries need to be addressed in order for global organizations thrive?

Of course every country and in many cases, regions within countries, have their own cultures. These are driven by religion, climate, industrial development, tradition and custom. Clearly there are different cultures and therefore, different values around the world. But I would offer two counter arguments to this being a major issue within organizations.

First, there is the company’s culture. This is driven and developed by leadership, corporate values, business goals and working practices. When at work, do people pay more attention to the corporate culture than they do to their own national or regional culture? I believe they do. Or perhaps more pertinently, they find a way to harmonize the two.

Second, there is the issue of stereotyping a whole nation as one – Americans are brash, the British are reserved, Germans are efficient, Indians avoid conflict and so on. My experience is that within each nation, people are all different. Some Americans are brash but others are sensitive. Some British are reserved but others are outgoing. Some Germans are efficient but others are rash and impetuous. Some Indians avoid conflict but others are prepared to challenge contrary points of view. To stereotype a whole nation is simply wrong. People are people.

So if you are working with or leading people in other countries, are cultural differences a boundary that need to be addressed?

I would argue that we make a much bigger deal of it than it really is. People are all different – period. When you are working with or leading other people, your primary consideration should be to treat them as an individual. Understand their needs and drivers. Listen to their ideas. Treat them with respect. This will go a lot further than reading up on the cultural differences and making a half-baked attempt to ‘fit in’ or ‘accommodate their needs’.

In my work I travel extensively and generally speaking, I find it is straightforward to build relationships everywhere I go. Of course there are cultural differences but do they get in the way of doing business? No, it just means that leadership skills need to be deployed more effectively and often, more consciously.

Leadership in every culture is about understanding and inspiring the people that you lead – don’t use culture as an excuse!

See you at the top :)
Simon

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Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading across cultural boundaries,

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