Cultural pitfalls in the corporate world

However communications-savvy you may feel, it's easy to be caught out when dealing with different cultures - even those that seem the most familiar, writes Chris Ingram.

When I lived briefly in the US, I rapidly became aware of the cultural differences, particularly the supremely practical “let’s get on with it” approach of many Americans.

While we might want to be a bit philosophical about something, they’ll say: ‘It is what it is!’ In fact, it’s safe to assume that Americans don’t do irony and you should tailor your jokes and wisecracks accordingly. I remember seeing the play Art in London and New York and noticing that the audience laughed in different places.

The “just do it” slogan of Nike captures their approach brilliantly. I recall arriving at our New York office first thing on a wet, windy Monday morning. Although I am by nature an optimist, I couldn’t help saying in the lift as we went up: ‘Absolutely typical for a Monday morning.’ The errand boy, who was sharing the lift, said brightly: ‘Yes, but we’ll feel even better when it clears up afterwards!’ Even I thought there are times when I can do without this relentlessly up-tempo approach.

While this disparity can be merely amusing on a social level, in business it can be critical. For example, a non-executive director of one of my companies was the head of a division of a large multinational based in the US and an executive had prepared an important paper and sent it to his British boss for comment.

The boss read it and phoned the exec and said: ‘Chuck, I’ve read your report and I really think you should have another look at it before it’s circulated.’ The next day, the boss, to his horror, found that the report had been circulated to the board totally unchanged. Furious, he picked up the phone, demanding to know why Chuck had ignored him.

Chuck was amazed: ‘But I did look at it again; I liked what I saw so I distributed it!’ The American had not picked up the Brit’s coded signal – ‘looking at it again’ meant it wasn’t up to scratch.

Plain English

Most non-Brits can’t bear our abstruseness – ‘Why don’t you just say what you mean?’ they demand in exasperation. I know things are changing as different cultures integrate more, but the Brits’ habit of being indirect can cause problems. ‘Could you possibly do this?’ asks a boss, knowing full well the subordinate has to do it.

Suggesting an action rather than giving a direct order can be confusing and may be interpreted as a sign of weakness. That’s the opposite extreme of many cultures in which a manager, while being very polite with their equals, won’t even bother to say please when asking their subordinates to do something.

Remarking on this when I was in India, an impeccably behaved entrepreneur responded by saying: ‘I’m the boss; they know that, I know that, so why play games? They get paid to do what I ask!’

Jolly nice chaps

Similarly, Brits must be very careful with their use of understatement or self-deprecation, which, to a fellow Brit, shows you’re a decent bloke and not conceited. Some years ago at CIA, we had built a deliberately multinational team at head office to help run all our local offices: there were 17 execs representing 14 different nationalities. This was revolutionary at the time; we were winning a lot of business and were twice awarded International Agency of the Year.

I used to meet the team on a quarterly basis to pick up serious issues and update them on the group’s progress. I used the throwaway line: ‘Well, on a good day, we’re almost average.’

The Brits, Aussies and Kiwis laughed out loud. Most looked really puzzled, but the German was horrified. The Anglo-Saxons realised that you must be really confident to make a flippant comment like that. Besides, they knew we were performing brilliantly. Conversely, the German thought: ‘My God, the boss thinks we’re less than average even when we’re trying. We must be in trouble and I hadn’t even noticed!’

The puzzled majority probably thought: ‘What a strange sense of humour the British have.’ Admittedly, it was a really dumb thing to say and unnecessarily flash, but I’d learnt an important lesson.

Click here to read Chris Ingram on getting on your staff’s wavelength.

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

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Corporate Culture