Review and Key Takeaways by Shannon Fox

In the course of my brief tenure on this planet, I have been employed in over 50 positions by about 30 organizations.*  Of the many industries available, the largest one, which has escaped me, has been the foodservice industry (unless you count my time in college working as one of the payroll secretaries for the dining commons so I could get a paycheck and supplemental meals, necessary for the starving university student or my time working as a food and beverage girl at a concert venue where we split tips and were then able to attend concerts for free) but otherwise, I have spent some time in several of the major ones. 

Largely, these multiple roles were motivated by interest and their ability to provide for basic needs.  Towards the end of my broke college days, I began to look for jobs that would take me out of the United States and for research opportunities in extreme environments. These travels led me to work with multiple nationalities all over the globe on various projects.

The world is dynamic, as are the people involved with creating livelihoods and jobs in every culture.  The Culture Map by Erin Meyers works as a tool to help build communication across the barriers inherent in our different cultural backgrounds.  It does not disregard the individual characteristics of a person within a cultural grouping, but instead shows an average consistent categorization of the perceived “norm” of a region.  It enables the reader to use the book as a tool to help analyze where some areas of confusion, disagreement, and misunderstandings may occur. 

Whether you work in a home office or abroad, business success in our ever more globalized and virtual world requires the skills to navigate through cultural differences and decode cultures foreign to our own.  This book guides you through the subtle, occasionally treacherous terrain where people from entirely different backgrounds are expected to achieve the goals and objectives of their workplace environment harmoniously.  Even the times when we are all speaking the same language, we can be saying very different things. 

Meyer claims you can improve relationships by considering where you and international partners fall on each of these scales: 

Out of the topics presented by Meyer, I had many thoughts and opinions, but the three I reflected on most for their applicability in my current and previous positions were: Communicating: Explicit vs. Implicit, Evaluating: Direct negative feedback vs. Indirect negative feedback, and Deciding: “Big D or Little d.

Communicating: Explicit vs. Implicit

“I want you to teach me how to read the air,” requested a student during a weekend facilitator workshop. We had been discussing the concepts and implications of working and communicating in high context cultures (higher than our countries of origin). During our weekend of conversations, we discussed cultural cues from the multiple backgrounds we had worked and lived in. For myself, it was 5 years in Japan where I had observed the most harmonious business communication I have ever seen, with the fewest words necessary.  This beautiful thing is referred to as “reading the air.” The seeming simplicity was especially addicting, coming from the United States where conversations were habitually full of many unnecessary words. 

High-context cultures are those that communicate in ways that are implicit. They rely heavily on context–of all these cultures, worldwide, Japan is the highest context culture. Low-context cultures rely on explicit verbal communication. Worldwide, the United States is the lowest context culture. Given these definitions (and years of cultural research), it has been determined the most effective approach when working in a multi-cultural environment is to defer to the lowest context culture on your team, otherwise the details can be easily lost and errors can occur. 

Trying to teach a low context culture to “read the air” and correctly interpret cultural cues comes from a history of total immersion. The focus should be on the inclusivity of the entire team, which shifts the communication style to the lowest shared language content.  When I worked with the organizations in Japan, if something needed to be addressed or something had been overlooked, I’d provide my bosses with words to communicate such instances with our team so we felt properly aligned with the mission and the group dynamic. Opening up the communication lines helped provide a different type of harmony and enabled the higher context cultures a safe space to practice explicit instructions without feeling as though it would be taken personally. 

Evaluating: Direct Negative Feedback vs. Indirect Negative Feedback

I can not express how much I dislike the “sandwich” method form of feedback which wraps negative feedback in praise.  Through this method, the feedback discussion starts with positive comments and is followed by negative criticism before appreciative words are used again.  It has had an adverse impact on my own receival of feedback. I am naturally cautious around appreciations and praise, waiting for the actual criticism and for what I consider to be the actual intention of the conversation.  Culturally, the United States holds space for being blunt because they are explicit communicators. This transparent communication style can be so overwhelmingly positive when it is shared in the workplace with people from other countries. Because styles vary greatly across cultures, it is not always clear when an individual is being criticized and when they are being complimented.  In France, “no news is good news” and only when there is negative feedback do people feel like they need to hear it.  

Hierarchical cultures would only allow space for a boss to provide negative feedback to an employee, not an individual seen with equal or greater power within the organization. This feedback can be presented in a public demonstrative space in China but is more acceptable in private for most Asian cultures.  With my current role at Jump! Foundation in Bangkok, I provide training and have opportunities to support team members to become stronger in their own facilitation practices. Our organization is diverse, and there is a lot of cultural context and understanding to be accounted for to make sure the process of feedback is strengthening rather than uncomfortable. In reading The Culture Map, I have been able to adjust the presentation of feedback (which we choose to refer to as “feedforward”–building in foundation rather than deconstructing), and how others can  provide their insights. Adjusting for cultural differences within communication is an ongoing learning process that I have been able to embrace in this position.

Deciding: “Big D or Little d”

I never realized there was a “type” of decision, a big “D” and a little “d”.  I have worked with organizations who spend a significant amount of time sourcing employee input on a process before rolling out the final product. I have also worked with organizations who suffer through time constraints and are reactionary in nature, which prevent opportunities to fully process change before resolution must be obtained. Both styles have benefits and detriments, but I have heard people vehemently defend their decisions without acknowledging the process in which the decision was made and how it is impacting current realities. 

A decision quickly made, determined a small “d” by Meyer, will have some flexibility because as more discussions occur, new information will become available and applicable. The decision becomes one subject to be revisited and altered. Plans are then subject to continual revision, which means the hardened implementation can take quite a long time. Whereas decisions with long build out processes are much quicker to implement as most of the kinks and side effects have been worked out before its introduction. Noticing which cultures are inclined to utilize a certain decision style, and how your organization also views the process, can lead to less frustration and understanding regarding why changes are so frequent or why it takes so much time to provide an answer. This also helps staff members understand decisions based on the cultural context they are made in.  

Erin Meyers suggests, “If your team includes members from both a consensual and unilateral decision-making culture, problems could be avoided by explicitly discussing and agreeing upon a decision-making method during the early stages of collaboration. Consider defining the parameters of the ultimate decision: whether it should be by vote or by the boss; whether 100 percent agreement is needed; and how open the group will be to later changes. The more those on both sides of the cultural divide talk to each other, the more natural it becomes to adjust to one another.”

The Culture Map is an applicable and easy tool to use within the context of our ever-increasing globalization, which impacts all industries. If you would like a deeper dive into other tools available (for purchase) for your own personal use, the organization you work for, or the company you intend to start, please see below:

Tools (Courtesy of Erin Meyers)

The Country Mapping Tool

This tool allows you to click on whichever countries you are working with and receive a cultural mapping of the selected countries/cultures. With this tool you can compare how two (or more) cultures build trust, give negative feedback, and make decisions.

The Personal Profile Tool

Even seasoned, cosmopolitan managers often have oversimplified ideas about how people from other cultures operate. That’s because they tend to zero in on just one or two elements- communication, for example, or decision making. But culture is more complex than that. To get an accurate picture, you need to gauge cognitive, relational, and behavioral differences along the eight dimensions introduced by cross-cultural management expert Erin Meyer in her book: The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Public Affairs, 2014).

The Personal Profile Tool is divided into two parts:

1. First you are asked to respond to a short questionnaire to determine your personal profile against that of others from your own culture. The Questionnaire allows you to find out how your own style of giving feedback, establishing trust, and making decisions (just to get started) compares to others from your own culture.

2. Once you have established your personal profile, you can compare your results with those of participants from over 65+ countries (those available on the Country Mapping tool), all on one graph. You can pick and chose as few or as many of the 65+ countries available and create a graph that will highlight the main similarities and differences along the 8 dimensions of the Culture Map.

The Team Mapping Tool

Much like the Personal Profile tool, The Team Mapping tool allows you to gauge cognitive, relational, and behavioral differences along the eight dimensions introduced by cross-cultural management expert Erin Meyer in her book: The Culture Map and compare them to how other members of your team have responded to those same questions, all on one graph.

The Team Mapping Tool is divided into two parts:

1. First you are asked to respond to a short questionnaire to determine your cultural profile against that of others from your own culture. The questionnaire allows you to find out how your own style of giving feedback, establishing trust, and making decisions (just to get started) compares to others from your own culture.

2. Once you have established your personal profile, you can compare your results with those of other members of your team, all on one graph. The resulting graph will highlight the main similarities and differences between you and the other members of your team along the 8 dimensions of the Culture Map. You can select up to 7 members at a time and you can retake the Questionnaire as many times as you want.

*Shannon’s 50 jobs (paid positions, in order from birth to now (does not include any volunteer positions, or multiple entries)):

(1)Baby model, (2) “Made for tv” movie star (for all of 3 minutes), (3)babysitter, (4)pet sitter, (5)classroom assistant, (6)T-ball coach for the city parks and recreation, (7)camp counselor, (8)warehouse stock girl, (9)tutor, (10)receptionist for a flooring company, (11)account specialist at flooring company, (12)accounts receivable/payable and secretary for beverage company, (13) personal assistant to a world record label, (14)water quality specialist, (15)field hydrologist, (16)lobster diver, (17)sales clerk at dive shop, (18)krill biologist (multiple seasons), (19)payroll secretary for the dining commons, (20)lab technician, (21)food and beverage clerk at the Santa Barbara Bowl, (22)field research assistant, (23)ornithologist, (24)lab specimen technician, (25)dissertation research assistant, (26) custodian, (27) paid aggravator in a riot, (28)sediment collection diver, (29)coral reef check diver, (30)special education assessment secretary, (31)ocean recreation instructor for the air force, (32)owner of ocean summer programs company, (33)English teacher for private/group sessions, (34)English preschool teacher, (35)business English instructor, (36)shark research biologist, (37)voice of a Japanese museum, (38)outdoor recreation specialist in the UAE, (39)field biologist on mangrove project, (40)curriculum designer for field ecology, (41) sales associate for boutique,  (42) sales associate for massage units, (43) supervisor, (44) outdoor instructor and designer for field geography courses, (45) outdoor instructor and facilitator, (46) reality TV show diver for sardine run, (47) house cleaner and organizer, (48) traveling sales associate for boutique, (49) wholesale buyer for boutique, (50) staffing manager for a non-profit organization.

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