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Navigating Unexpected Cultural Differences

Building A Team
Company Culture
Cultural Differences

18 January, 2022

Markus Aeugle
Markus Aeugle

VP Engineering at Doctolib

Markus Aeugle, VP Engineering at Doctolib, shares how he succeeded as an inclusive leader by helping his team navigate through the various cultural differences.

When Culture Doesn’t Translate

The business landscape today is exceptionally global. Besides other challenges in our day-to-day business, this calls for an improvement in cross-cultural interactions. A good example of this would be that in Berlin, being a German in the office means you can be a minority. The company that I work in has more than 40 nationalities working under the same roof, and it’s pretty rare to have more than 2 - 3 people of the same nationality. Considering most team members in Milan are 100% Italians, and Paris has nearly 90% native French speakers (even some from Canada or North Africa), Berlin has the biggest cultural diversity in the workplace. To get this managed you have to increase your sensitivity to that topic. A very good example of how this can work out was a training session we held in one of my former adventures with offices in San Francisco and Berlin. The teams stated clearly that there’s no cultural differences between the offices, so most of them denied the idea at first, but later joined the session to discover the unknown.

Navigating Through the Diversity

Take the Time to Study a Prospect’s Culture:

The training sessions started with a German trainer who handpicked some of the stereotypes as the starting point to explain cultural differences. The most relatable example he took was how accurate everyone was at showing up at a meeting. For instance, when we have a meeting at 9 am, “the Germans” are more likely to show up at 8:58 am, or at latest by 9:03 am.

On the other hand, when he spoke about “the Mexicans”, — although some people in the US went ballistic — it ignited a heated conversation. Apparently, in California, “Mexicans” is a term that should not be used, while it is completely normal for the rest of the world. These are some of the studies that most in an international office needed to work through.

Saying this, you should really start from square one in entering a new cultural area and a new cultural area is everything else that you’re feeling familiar with. You can prepare how much as possible, but you need a local counterpart to reflect and “test” your management and communication approach.

Be Sensitive to Differences in the English Language:

It is easy to get blindsided by the different meanings that each word or expression can mean. For example, colleagues in Tel Aviv, Israel would blurt out what they have in mind. It may come off as being rude, in reality, it is not. Therefore, choosing the right words when speaking to colleagues is crucial, especially when providing feedback. Even negative feedback can be provided politely to other colleagues if the right phrases are used. Always keep in mind that language is the combination of spoken content and tone. In addition to this communication is always seen as verbal and non-verbal. Take this into consideration with the cultural context.

Create Awareness Within the Teams:

Cultural differences exist even within countries; it’s not only a cross-border thing. While it’s rude to call out a Mexican person as “Mexican” in San Francisco, it’s totally cool for someone from Colorado. Cultural training can be extremely helpful when it comes to effective team interactions. This training can initially lead to a lot of “aha” moments, but as individuals become accustomed to the cultural gaps, it becomes easier for the business to function as a whole.

Build Your Own Cultural Basis

  • There are cultural differences everywhere, while there are cases that are obvious (e.g. central Europe vs. eastern Asia) it’s important you focus on clusters that seem identical. Accept and face it; anyone joining an international organization should be aware of it, but what makes it easier is creating awareness. Stereotypes can come off as being crazy, and there is calm of truth in it.
  • Implement a structured plan to tackle the issue and don’t believe it will be solved by time or itself:
  • Gather as much information from the involved clusters as possible (personal experiences, external support, stereotypes,.....) b. Create a map starting with the following elements, map the involved clusters, and define gaps and distances from each other.
  • time management (e.g. none / linear / agile)
  • management approach (e.g. top-down, collaborative, task / mission / vision)
  • communication (e.g. low / high context, direct / indirect)
  • providing feedback and disagreeing (confrontational / non-confrontational)
  • Create a common ground for these elements within the organization (the cultural manifesto). Be careful that this is really a common ground and not just the understanding of one cluster which is imposed on the rest.
  • Deflect action items for the gaps and distances from the individual behavior to this manifesto.
  • Take the findings from the bullets before as the basis for a training program to higher sensitivity for the collaborating managers as multipliers within the clusters.

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