Expat Essentials

‘The Culture Map’: Don’t fight the differences, global managers; leverage them

(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in The Globalists, a regular series by global managers discussing international management issues, innovations and solutions.)

I am literally a poster child of globalization: A Paraguayan-born German-American dual citizen reared in San Juan, New York and Louisville who has spent the past 20 years working in Miami, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore.

But with all due respect to Thomas Friedman, the world still isn’t flat – at least not when it comes to managing people.

Yes, telecommunications, long-haul flights, outsourcing, insourcing and global supply chains continue to shrink the world and connect points of the globe via commercial activities that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

Global economies of scale rule.

Yes, women of all ages swoon over K-pop stars in Tokyo and Taipei; Cambodian teenagers strut the streets of Siem Reap decked out in NBA basketball jerseys; European soccer clubs are global brands; and 30-something women in cities far away from New York can quote Sex and the City from memory.

The fluid exchange of pop culture across borders is staggering.

So one would think that managing multicultural/multinational teams would be easy in this golden era of cultural exchange.

Not so fast, my friends.

I can attest to this personally after my disastrous management of a project team that included members in Miami, Vancouver, Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Paris.

While the world is indeed changing at a head-spinning pace, cultural norms tend to change at a pace more akin to the speed of global warming.

Given the global mobility of our readership here at Dispatches Europe, many of you have no doubt seen Erin Meyer’s best-selling book, The Culture Map, at airports and train stations across the continent. If you happen to manage global project teams, instead of walking past it, buy it next time and read it if you haven’t already done so.

Meyer is a Paris-based American professor at INSEAD with a simple premise: There are eight dimensions of culture that encapsulate most of the tensions that manifest during global business:

  • Communicating
  • Evaluating
  • Persuading
  • Leading
  • Deciding
  • Trusting
  • Disagreeing
  • Scheduling

The genius of her work is the simplicity of its application. She visualizes her research on eight continua that identify the potential sources of conflict within a cross-cultural team.

Remember my aforementioned disastrous project team?

Here is the visualization as per The Culture Map:


This basically visualizes all of the frustrations I experienced but could not pinpoint at the time.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that this is just another academic-ivory tower-mumbo jumbo-pile of bovine excrement, she is not saying that all people from one culture behave in exactly in the same ways.

Rather, her research shows that cultures as a whole tend to act in certain ways in direct comparison to other cultures. Being aware of these differences can help global managers proactively identify and mitigate potential pain points within a team or group.

Figuring out how to leverage these differences can be transformational for the larger organization.

Ultimately, managing is still about people skills, emotional intelligence and adaptability – particularly when doing so across borders.

The Culture Map is an extremely useful tool to have in your global management toolbox.

About the author:

Albrecht Stahmer is a Paraguayan-born German-American who grew up in the United States. He has lived and worked in New York, Miami, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Tokyo and currently calls Singapore home.

As a senior trainer and management consultant, he helps clients solve talent-development challenges across Asia-Pacific.

Albrecht considers himself a management guru – bad management, to be precise, having worked for five companies that declared bankruptcy. These experiences have given him keen insights on management misalignment, which he writes about in this column.

When not musing on management issues, he scours the globe in pursuit of the world’s best bourbon bars.

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