Behavioral Differences in Different Cultures

Some acceptable -- and desired -- behaviors in American organizations would be considered rude or could hinder smooth operations in some countries.

Sunday, November 1, 2009
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People can always have different perceptions about the behavior of other people that they work with and what they actually mean when they say or do something. When you take into account different cultures, this brings even more complexity into the equation in terms of what people may or may not mean by their actions.

Let's look at some examples. I have outlined some key behaviors that are commonly assessed and regarded as being important behaviors within Western-style organisations. Some considerations, however, need to be taken into account that could lead to some changes in the way the behavior is described.

Key Behavior: Conveys views to others in a direct and open way to arrive at a mutually acceptable result.

Consideration: In the Gulf and Middle East region, being up-front and direct about something could be considered rude and impolite. The revised behavior could be: Shares own thoughts and views in an effort to arrive at a mutually acceptable result.

Key Behavior: Seeks feedback from others about own performance.

Consideration: In some cultures, this could be seen as a possible weakness insofar as good performers wouldn't admit to not being good at something. The revised behavior could be: Listens to others' views about areas of performance improvement and takes action accordingly.

Key Behavior: Builds a climate of trust by being continually open and honest about own feelings.

Consideration: The Japanese, for example, are extremely sensitive to what others might think of them (or worse -- what people are saying behind their backs) and can be hesitant to do something new, different or independent such as this. The revised behavior could be: Shares thoughts, feelings and rationale so that others understand personal positions.

Key Behavior: Proactively takes the lead and identifies solutions to problems.

Consideration: In India, there is a "high power" and authoritarian culture. This means that leadership-type behavior is only expected from people with formal authority or status in the organization. Hence, leading-type of behavior may not be considered appropriate and hence, is rarely demonstrated by individuals in non-leadership roles. The revised behavior could be: Looks to find better ways of doing things.

Key Behavior: Takes decisive action to overcome current issues, problems, obstacles and barriers to success.

Consideration: In Saudi Arabia, for example, decisions are made slowly as the society, and their way of operating is extremely bureaucratic. Most decisions require several layers of approval with, on occasion, the ultimate decision being made by the highest ranking person. The revised behavior could be: Formulates clear decision criteria and initiates action within a reasonable timeframe.

Key Behavior: Enthuses, motivates and generates commitment from others through style of communication.

Consideration: In China, relationships are very important and relevant in business.  Someone is considered most effective in this area if they are able to put key messages across but still maintain harmony and cordial relationships with others.  Aggressive or overly forceful behavior, particularly those that threaten team cohesion, is frowned upon. The revised behavior could be: Communicates in a clear, concise and understandable way, while relating to the needs and interests of others.

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The issue of sensitivity across cultural boundaries is becoming even more prevalent, especially with global organizations where collaborative cross-functional working is becoming a way of life to deliver new or revised customer-based solutions.

In these situations, some organizations have started to develop a specific competency that outlines what their expectations are of people in their organizations.

Some sample behaviors relating to cross-cultural awareness could include the following:

* Shows sensitivity to the perspectives and interests of people of different cultures or functions.

* Shows respect for decisions and actions that take into account different cultural concerns and expectations.

* Demonstrates inclusive behavior by establishing relationships and learning more about people of other cultures and backgrounds.

Dave Millner is consulting director, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at Kenexa, based in the London office. He previously was with NatWest (now part of the RBS Group) where his background was originally in the assessment of commercial risk and lending propositions. Following a change in career he went on to spend two years as a full-time assessor and facilitator on the bank's competency-based leadership-development programs, and from 1990 for some 10 years, he was a key player within the bank's internal HR consultancy function, where he reached the level of managing consultant.

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