“The Culture Map” (Book Review)

A few years ago I worked with a team member who expressed his struggle to work with another colleague. “I don’t know whether it’s his Mediterranean temperament, but when he talks it all feels so brusque,” he said of our colleague. This is just my own example, but it’s exactly the kind of scenario which Erin Meyer’s book “The Culture Map” (2014) addresses in great detail. In “The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Culture” Meyer uses an eight-scale framework. Each of the eight scales represents one key area that managers must be aware of, showing how cultures vary along a spectrum from one extreme to its opposite:

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

Image Credit: https://erinmeyer.com/mapping-out-cultural-differences-on-teams/

Let me examine three of the eight scales, which I imagine a lot of us have encountered or are likely to experience.

Communicating: low-context vs high-context

In cultures where low-context communication styles are prevalent, people assume a low level of shared context – few shared reference points and comparatively little implicit knowledge linking speaker and listener. In low-context countries like the United States and my mother country the Netherlands, effective communication must be simple, clear, and explicit in order to effectively pass the message.

In contrast, in high-context countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan, people tend to communicate in ways that are implicit and rely heavily on shared context. Someone from a high-context culture might accuse a low-context speaker of being too direct, whereas a low-context listener might often wonder if the high-context speaker will ever get to the point! Meyer is very clear about this: “You might be considered a top flight communicator in your home culture, but what works at home may not work so well with people from other cultures.”

When working with people from higher-context cultures, Meyer suggests to listen actively, listening out for what’s is meant instead of what’s being said. And if you find yourself working with people from lower-context cultures, Meyer recommends being as transparent, clear, and specific as possible.

Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs indirect negative feedback

Meyer’s Evaluating scale offers important insights into how to give effective performance appraisals and negative feedback in different parts of the world. She outlines a spectrum ranging from “direct negative feedback” to “indirect negative feedback”. With direct negative feedback, the feedback is delivered to a colleague frankly, bluntly and honestly. Negative messages stand alone, not softened by positive ones. In contrast, when indirect negative feedback is provided it’s done in a soft, subtle and diplomatic manner.

Meyer offers three valuable tips with respect to providing feedback. Firstly, when providing an evaluation, be explicit and low-context with both positive and negative feedback. She suggests not launching into the negative until you’ve also explicitly stated something that you appreciate about the person or the situation. The positive comments should be honest and stated in a detailed, explicit manner. Secondly, try, over time, to be balanced in the amount of positive and negative feedback you give. I’d add that we should avoid using the “shit sandwich” as this construction of negative feedback sandwiched in between ‘positive’ comments often feels dishonest and inauthentic. Thirdly, frame your behaviour in cultural terms. Don’t use your culture background as an excuse for behaving like a d*** but talk openly about the cultural differences that explain your communication style. If possible, show appreciation for the other culture while laughing humbly at your own.

Persuading: principles-first vs applications-first

There are two types of reasoning we can use to persuade; principles-first and applications-first reasoning. Principles-first (or deductive) reasoning derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts. With applications-first reasoning (or inductive) reasoning, general conclusions are based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world. Meyer explains that people fro principles-first cultures generally want to understand the why behind their boss’s request before they move to action. Applications-first learners tend to focus less on the why and more on the how.

Main learning point: “The Culture Map” is a very valuable resource for anyone working with people from different cultures. Erin Meyer’s book provides great insights both in terms of the backgrounds to differences in collaboration and communication styles and how to best navigate these differences.

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