Aligning Across Cultures

My book, Align: Discovering Customer Insights that Matter, is with the publisher and should be available for purchasing soon. In the meantime, I’ve been rereading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, published in 2014.

I wish I’d had access to Ms. Meyer’s book back in 2012 when I first moved to Penang Malaysia. I was assigned the job of leading a small team to analyze our competitors. I jumped right into the job.

Operating from my American work style, I clearly stated our goals, and collaborated with the team on ways we could achieve each goal. At least that was my intention. However, as much as the engineers seemed to go along with me, I felt like something was missing, and it wasn’t only enthusiasm. I thought that maybe the goals I’d set were too lofty. So I broke them down into concrete and achievable steps. I continued to urge my team to think about how they wanted to achieve each piece. Still, I received very little input.

In the second week, one of the engineers spoke up. He was exasperated.  “Can’t you just spell out what you want us to do? Just prescribe each step, and we’ll do it.”

I was taken aback. Who would request such a thing?

Well, after reading The Culture Map, I can tell you who: Hokkien Malaysian engineers.

For one thing, Hokkien Malaysians communicate in a high-context manner, meaning they see the big picture first, and read between the lines. And there I was, zooming into the project and, as a low-context American, laying out on the white board all of the objectives and challenges that I saw.

Secondly, Hokkiens tend to trust after getting to know a person personally. Well, I failed at that style of trust-building straight away. I started our conversations with our task at hand, without really getting to know my team beyond a few minutes’ introduction.

Confrontation is typically avoided in Malaysia, especially with higher-ups. So while I expected some back and forth, and discussion, I was met with silent nods.

Lastly, leadership and decision making tend to be hierarchical in Malaysia. So subordinates expect their leaders to spell out exactly what they want them to do. This was something I’d never experienced in my career in California. Sure, a boss might have given guidance, or pointed out a well-established (and required) policy in say, a manufacturing context. Otherwise, we Americans like to set a goal and figure out our own paths. Not so in Malaysia.

If I’d read The Culture Map back in 2012, I could have seen my team’s behavior as cultural, and perhaps avoided judging them based on my own cultural norms. I could have adjusted my leadership approach to best make use of their talents. Oh well, what’s done is done. I know better now. And The Culture Map pointed out my errors – in painstaking detail.

My book, Align, is American centric. The advice I give is with American sensibilities in mind, and it assumes that customers from foreign cultures will be knowledgable and comfortable with the ways of the American. I touch on cultural considerations in one chapter, and i n it, I cite a few tips from Ms. Meyer’s book. However, anyone who works with global cultures regularly should read her book, and not make due with my one single chapter.

Now that I’ve lived and worked in Asia (between China and Malaysia), and I’m planning to move to Italy, my second book is coming into focus: Take the advice in book #1 and transpose it to working with customers from various cultures.  In addition to my own face-planting experiences, the book The Culture Map will be a valuable guide.