Create a Healthy Culture for Global Projects

A four-step process for leveraging cultural difference to accomplish your objectives.

More U.S. employees than ever before direct global teams and projects, interface with international partners, and serve global customers. Other than those working in large multinationals, global managers often face the question of how to juggle multiple cultural approaches. A company that holds its customers to detailed contracts may discover its international partner allows customers to change requirements without penalty. And half the members of a global team may expect to spend evenings and weekends bonding together, while the other half expect to spend evenings and weekends with their families. Executives I work with often are confused about which culture to prioritize. Should they insist on headquarters policies for overseas operations? Yield to the preferences of an in-country workforce? Try to find a compromise between the two? And in a multicultural situation, how do they make the chosen approach work for everyone?

Creating a Goal-Based Culture

I guide managers through a four-step process for developing policies and procedures based on the goals of the project or collaboration, while using culture-based management techniques to get all parties to support them.

Sacrificing one group’s cultural priorities in favor of another’s can result in resentment and demotivation. Creating a goal-based culture takes power politics out of the equation and puts the focus where it belongs—on objectives. Each cultural approach brings unique strengths to the table, and management’s goal should be to motivate each group to apply its particular skills on behalf of the project or company.

For instance, I often work with U.S. managers from highly Process-oriented companies that have partners or employees in highly Network-oriented countries. My Process-focused clients work according to predetermined plans toward their goals. They favor objective criteria and procedures, which they apply equally to everyone. In Network-oriented environments, in contrast, people get things done by leveraging relationships and connections. They spend time cultivating contacts who can help them navigate complex systems and repay any help they receive with favoritism in their business dealings.

Here’s an example of how a Process-oriented company might approach a Network-oriented workforce:

Imagine that U.S.-based Strivethrough, Inc., has opened a subsidiary in a country with strong Network tendencies. Strivethrough will benefit from its Network employees’ ability to leverage personal connections to obtain introductions to influential partners, speed up permitting and other bureaucratic processes, and navigate the local legal system. But suppose these employees are also slow to get back to work after breaks, tend to favor their friends for hiring and promotions, and prioritize the customers they like best over others—behaviors that do not align with Strivethrough’s Process-oriented corporate culture or goals for customer service. The company’s managers will want to redirect their Network-oriented employees toward greater productivity and a more systematic and equitable approach—while continuing to benefit from their expertise in leveraging personal relationships.

Step 1: Identify the potential for “cultural synergy”

If Strivethrough imposes its own Process-oriented approach in a way that stifles Network tendencies, it will lose the strengths that come with those tendencies. To get the best of both approaches, Strivethrough should acknowledge these strengths and involve its employees in designing Network-oriented policies, systems, and processes that address its goals. Creating “cultural synergies” between Process and Network approaches will enable Strivethrough’s subsidiary to accomplish its goals while maintaining a positive work environment where Network solutions contribute to the bottom line—a win-win outcome for the company and its employees.

Step 2: Communicate project goals

Strivethrough managers should bring local employees on board with the corporate mission by describing the company’s competitive position and strategy and explain the way consistent standards for employee productivity and customer service relate to this strategy. They should explain the importance of objective performance measures and uniform customer service in meeting these standards.

Step 3: Engage employees in developing culturally appropriate policies

The highly Process-focused policies in place in Strivethrough’s U.S. operations probably seem impersonal and alienating to Network-oriented employees, and importing them wholesale could result in productivity losses and turnover in its overseas facilities. To prevent these problems, managers need to design policies that acknowledge and respect the relationships and workplace dynamic valued by their Network employees. They might work with in-country managers to add performance criteria that reward referrals for high-performing new hires. If they implement policies that decrease opportunities for social interaction on the job, they might replace these with after-hours activities that celebrate and reinforce social connections among co-workers.

Step 4: Correct and re-orient to align with goals

Involving in-country employees in creating an organizational culture will help Strivethrough develop synergistic policies that motivate people and help them adjust willingly to change. Managers should keep the focus on corporate objectives as they make decisions and resolve disputes to provide clarity and minimize resentment and the appearance of favoritism. Modeling a focus on objectives also will illustrate ways for local employees to implement goal-based practices on an ongoing basis.

Rather than engaging in a tug-of-war over whose culture to prioritize, a focus on objectives helps establish goals for a project or organizational culture that does not favor one approach over another. Identifying opportunities for cultural synergies that leverage the particular strengths of each party helps clarify the potential benefits of incorporating diverse approaches. Seeking input from each group increases feelings of inclusion while encouraging creative problem solving and the development of culturally appropriate strategies. And guiding this process with constant reference to objectives and desired outcomes demonstrates and reinforces goal-based management for all concerned. Creating win-win organizational cultures enables global companies to harness the unique strengths of diverse locations in reaching shared objectives.

Deirdre B. Mendez, Ph.D. is an intercultural consultant, speaker, and author who helps U.S. companies and their international partners identify and resolve culture-based problems. Following two decades as a consultant, Mendez is now associate director for Cultural Programs at the McCombs School of Business. Her book, “The Culture Solution facilitates self-guided problem solving for international executives. Find her at www.deirdremendez.com.

 

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