How to Build Relationships Across Cultures

While working with others from different cultures or nationalities brings tremendous benefits to your organization, it can also result in misunderstandings and more complicated interpersonal dynamics. Managers and employees at all levels are often confused when their tried-and-true tactics of relationship-building or motivating people don’t work on someone who comes from a different background. Why? Many cultures have different ideas of what work means to them, and different ideas of how they should respond to leadership. While it’s important for everyone to be authentically themselves, it is also important to be aware of sensitivities and tendencies that your team or coworkers across various cultures may have.

So, what exactly is culture? It can be hard to define. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits” of a certain group,  but this definition is also vague. Geert Hofstede, a famous Dutch researcher, offers a helpful definition of culture as being “the unwritten rules of how we do things [that] differ from one human group to another.”  He goes on to say that in order for us to properly develop an international perspective, an important task is to recognize your own culture and its tendencies as compared to others’ cultures.

But discovering what your own cultural tendencies are can be a challenging exercise. Culture is learned early on, so we are not often aware of our own culture until we come across someone who is different. And even then, it can be difficult to accurately define what is different between your culture and another. Likewise, this is the reason why it can be frustrating for your employee or coworker to successfully communicate feedback to you about why a certain management or communication style doesn’t work for them.

Despite these challenges, Hofstede and other researchers have identified labels for which to discuss cultural differences. An important dimension to consider is the “individualism/collectivism” label, which can be used to identify the difference between cultures where people view themselves more as individuals, versus collective cultures whose members view themselves primarily as part of a group. Recognizing this distinction could make all the difference in successfully motivating an employee or creating an incentive scheme for an office in a different country. For example, telling an employee that taking a certain opportunity would benefit their career and personal growth will be much more persuasive to a member of an individualistic culture, such as someone from the US, UK or Australia. In contrast, explaining that pursuing a course of action will have tremendous benefits to the team and the organization may go farther when trying to motivate a member of a collective culture, such as someone who may have grown up in South America or Asia.

Another important dimension Hofstede defines is “power distance,” or the significance you give to different hierarchical positions. In high power distance cultures, there is a greater importance placed on rank and showing respect for those in higher positions than yours, which may result in leadership not necessarily seeking input lower-level positions and expecting complete subordination. Examples of high power distance cultures include countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. 

Conversely, Austria, Israel, and Denmark are examples of countries who have a lower power distance culture, where employees may feel more comfortable challenging authority, and leadership might be more willing to seek input from lower-level employees. Such differences could explain why you may have someone who is eager to share their opinions about what could be improved about the company or management, since they want to be perceived as invested in the company, and simultaneously why you may encounter someone who would feel very uncomfortable sharing their opinion about such a topic for fear of being perceived as insubordinate or rebellious.

As a leader or coworker, it can be tempting to connect more easily with members of the same culture as you, since you might feel that you can motivate and lead them more easily. But it is important to try not to show favoritism (particularly if you are in a leadership position), since it can lead to an “us versus them” mentality and be harmful to workplace dynamics and relationships. One way to prevent this bias is to increase your awareness of your own culture and preferences. To do so, read more about cultural differences in articles such as this and take assessments like HBR’s cultural profile to learn more about yourself. While it is important to not underestimate the differences between different cultures, at the same time, you cannot exaggerate and generalize these differences either. Differences in culture should not be used to explain poor performance or a lack of effort, for example. Additionally, be careful not to stereotype. Just because you worked with someone of a particular culture who displayed a certain tendency or behavior, does not automatically mean that everyone from that culture will act the same way.

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