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Taste The Water You Swim In: Thoughts On Cultural Difference

“A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. We live and breath through it.”

(from: Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, 1998)

A fish jumping out of a fish bowl

As a German living in the UK and working globally, I have lived through many situations where cultural expectations have led to misunderstandings. Sometimes it has made us laugh, at other times it caused conflict and finger pointing. To my surprise, I began to understand much more about cross-cultural differences in business when I spent 6 months working in Germany. 

Consulting for a British-owned, global organisation that had acquired a German company, I witnessed how the British Finance Director asked the German team to “possibly consider over the summer” how they might adapt their reporting of a particular item in the accounts. The German Finance Director heard a suggestion that was optional with no deadline – and promptly ignored the instruction to make a change by September! Coaching both sides through this situation, I found they were both blissfully unaware of the assumptions and expectations at play in their own culture (and language) and how these were different across the Channel.

Working in Germany after living and working in the UK for many years, I truly had the chance to “taste the water I swim in”. The differences in national culture between British and German colleagues (with a few Americans in the mix as well) were overlaid by differences in organisational culture post acquisition, differences in the regulatory environment, individual differences in personality and management style, strong regional cultures and plenty of language challenges. This is complex! And the water can get very cloudy… 

Yet, the prize for successfully working through these cultural challenges is huge, in particular following an acquisition or merger across borders where people need to come together to realise synergies and build trust.

So how can leaders develop “cultural competence” in order to be effective in these situations, often leading multinational teams and working virtually across time zones and geographies?  

It starts with raising your awareness of your own cultural norms and biases and how these are different from others. What are your assumptions and expectations about how people in different cultures work and what motivates them? What do you think about business and business problems compared with colleagues from Mumbai, Shanghai, Philadelphia or Paris? What are your own unconscious biases? 

There are well-researched frameworks that describe cultural differences, for example the original work on cultural values by Gert Hofstede (built on by others such as Fons Trompenaars or Erin Meyer). A framework that I particularly like for its practical application in business is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer (2014). This was informed by research completed at Insead and has eight dimensions;

  • Communicating: low context vs. high context

  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback

  • Persuading: Principles first vs. applications first

  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical

  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down

  • Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based

  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation

  • Scheduling: linear time vs. flexible time

The definitions of these dimension help us understand what went wrong in the exchange about the German accounting change:

Communicating: low context vs. high context examples

Interestingly, Germany and the UK are relatively close to each other on the spectrum of Communicating and Scheduling compared to other countries. However, it’s all relative and even small differences can cause misunderstandings and irritation. On this occasion, I was able to see the situation from both sides, help the parties to resolve their conflict and lay the foundations for clearer communication in the future.

The good news is that there are human attributes that people from all cultures view as universally positive in leaders – “integrity” and “being inspirational” being top of the list. The work of Wendy Lambourne (Legitimate Leadership, 2012) on leadership excellence has shown that a leader’s INTENT is the determining factor whether an employee will “go the extra mile”. Do leaders put their people first? Do they see it as their core leadership task to enable and grow their people? In her experience, this cuts across cultural differences.

This means that leaders who are self-aware, demonstrate integrity and care for their people and who can add cultural sensitivity and situational leadership to their skill base are well-equipped for success.

What are we doing about this as The Leadership Coaches?

Coaching supports leaders and teams who are navigating the choppy waters of working effectively across cultures. The exploration of cross-cultural dynamics in combination with a systemic perspective allows leaders to hold up the mirror, make sense of what they see and take action to “clear the muddy water” so they can move forward more effectively.

Executive coaching is a fantastic help to leaders who are stepping into global roles, leading integration efforts following M&A or who are assigned to live and work in another country.  Team coaching allows leadership teams to bring hidden dynamics to the surface and create insights into the system, thus resulting in more effective interactions and enhanced team and business performance. 

Based in the UK, The Leadership Coaches have extensive experience of working globally and we are well-placed to work with multinational clients. If you wish to explore this topic further, please contact us at for a conversation with one of our leadership coaches.

Article written by The Leadership Coach Sabine Stanley.


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