As companies continue to expand across borders and the global marketplace becomes increasingly more accessible for small and large businesses alike, 2017 brings ever more opportunities to work internationally.
Multinational and cross-cultural teams are likewise becoming ever more common, meaning businesses can benefit from an increasingly diverse knowledge base and new, insightful approaches to business problems. However, along with the benefits of insight and expertise, global organizations also face potential stumbling blocks when it comes to culture and international business.
While there are a number of ways to define culture, put simply it is a set of common and accepted norms shared by a society. But in an international business context, what is common and accepted for a professional from one country, could be very different for a colleague from overseas. Recognizing and understanding how culture affects international business in three core areas: communication, etiquette, and organizational hierarchy can help you to avoid misunderstandings with colleagues and clients from abroad and excel in a globalized business environment.
Effective communication is essential to the success of any business venture, but it is particularly critical when there is a real risk of your message getting “lost in translation.” In many international companies, English is the de facto language of business. But more than just the language you speak, it’s how you convey your message that’s important. For instance, while the Finns may value directness and brevity, professionals from India can be more indirect and nuanced in their communication. Moreover, while fluent English might give you a professional boost globally, understanding the importance of subtle non-verbal communication between cultures can be equally crucial in international business.
What might be commonplace in your culture — be it a firm handshake, making direct eye contact, or kiss on the cheek — could be unusual or even offensive to a foreign colleague or client. Where possible, do your research in advance of professional interactions with individuals from a different culture. Remember to be perceptive to body language, and when in doubt, ask. While navigating cross-cultural communication can be a challenge, approaching cultural differences with sensitivity, openness, and curiosity can help to put everyone at ease.
“There is an atmosphere of understanding and support at Hult. Everyone has this respect and curiosity for all the cultural and personal differences between us. This environment encourages everyone to strive for excellence.”
Hult MBA Class of 2014
At Hult, we’re fortunate to have a student body made up of over 130 different nationalities. With the opportunity to study alongside peers from all corners of the globe, building cross-cultural communication skills is at the core of our business programs.
Watch Hult Professor Jean Vanhoegaerden discussing why culture is important in international business:
2. Workplace etiquette
Different approaches to professional communication is just one of the innumerable differences in workplace norms from around the world. CT Business Travel has put together a useful infographic for a quick reference of cultural differences in business etiquette globally.
For instance, the formality of address is a big consideration when dealing with colleagues and business partners from different countries. Do they prefer titles and surnames or is being on first-name basis acceptable? While it can vary across organizations, Asian countries such as South Korea, China, and Singapore tend to use formal “Mr./Ms. Surname,” while Americans and Canadians tend to use first names. When in doubt, erring on the side of formality is generally safest.
The concept of punctuality can also differ between cultures in an international business environment. Different ideas of what constitutes being “on time” can often lead to misunderstandings or negative cultural perceptions. For example, where an American may arrive at a meeting a few minutes early, an Italian or Mexican colleague may arrive several minutes — or more — after the scheduled start-time (and still be considered “on time”).
Along with differences in etiquette, come differences in attitude, particularly towards things like workplace confrontation, rules and regulations, and assumed working hours. While some may consider working long hours a sign of commitment and achievement, others may consider these extra hours a demonstration of a lack of efficiency or the deprioritization of essential family or personal time.
3. Organizational hierarchy
Organizational hierarchy and attitudes towards management roles can also vary widely between cultures. Whether or not those in junior or middle-management positions feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, questioning senior decisions, or expressing a differing opinion can be dictated by cultural norms. Often these attitudes can be a reflection of a country’s societal values or level of social equality. For instance, a country such as Japan, which traditionally values social hierarchy, relative status, and respect for seniority, brings this approach into the workplace. This hierarchy helps to define roles and responsibilities across the organization. This also means that those in senior management positions command respect and expect a certain level of formality and deference from junior team members.
However, Scandinavian countries, such as Norway, which emphasize societal equality, tend to have comparatively flat organizational hierarchy. In turn, this can mean relatively informal communication and an emphasis on cooperation across the organization. When defining roles in multinational teams with diverse attitudes and expectations of organizational hierarchy, it can be easy to see why these cultural differences can present a challenge.
As part of our mission to become the world’s most relevant business school, Hult is dedicated to preparing our students for the challenges and opportunities of working across borders and cultures. A big part of this preparation is understanding the role culture plays in international business. In many ways, the Hult classroom mirrors today’s business environment, with students of 130 nationalities collaborating and studying together. And not only are our students multicultural, our faculty is too. Many have lived, worked, and taught across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and beyond.
Outside of the classroom, Hult students have the opportunity to experience life, culture, and commerce in today’s most dynamic business centers through our global campus rotation program. This international learning environment offers a true global perspective and unique insight into culture and business practices from all over the world.
Have you ever encountered cultural differences in your workplace that were surprising? Tell us in the comments below.