Today, almost all business is global business. Cultural awareness – reading body language, knowing what to expect on your multicultural virtual teams, and understanding the importance of a relationship-building conversation before a meeting – is core for successful businesspeople today. This post is second in an ongoing series to help readers leverage insights into the eight dimensions of culturally based work style differences, so you can raise your own global business productivity.

Of all the cultural dimensions we talk about, Relationships may be the most fundamental and influential in raising awareness for improved cross-cultural communication and intercultural work situations. The Relationships Dimension describes the importance of building trust and establishing comfort before people can work together. It’s spectrum ranges from highly “Interpersonal” to highly “Transactional,” and all cultures – and individuals – find themselves somewhere along that scale.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that some people can immediately get down to productive business, while others begin a meeting with small talk and have to “warm up” before talking about the specific business situation. Some people will ask you questions about yourself and share lots of information about themselves, while others seem to be uncomfortable when a question is somewhat personal in a business setting.

I remember a meeting in Brazil (a “high Interpersonal” culture) where, for most of the meeting, my colleagues sat around talking soccer (futbal), sharing vacation plans and showing family photos. Even though my cross-cultural awareness training prepared me for their need for small talk, I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough time to talk about the business issues that brought us together.

When we eventually got around to discussing business, it was in a different way than people in a Transactional culture would have addressed it. It seems that no matter how well-prepared we are, working in multicultural teams, virtual or otherwise, is always challenging and potentially off-putting. If I had been unaware of this multicultural diversity, being a typical (Transactional) American, I would have started to talk about business prematurely, thus alienating the Brazilians and delaying progress toward my business goals. I can only imagine how challenging this meeting would be if I didn’t understand the Relationships dimension of intercultural competence.

Understanding the Relationships Dimension in Cross-Cultural Business

If you take a look at the accompanying illustration from the CultureWizard Culture Calculator, the cross-cultural differences between my personal work style and that of the US and Brazilian cultures becomes obvious.

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When you become aware of where a culture sits on the Relationships spectrum (more Interpersonal or Transactional), you have an idea of the importance of building extensive connections and developing trust as prerequisites to a productive work collaboration.

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to recognize people’s relationship preference. As is the case with most cross-cultural awareness issues, by simply observing visible behavior we get a lot of insight into the invisible, underlying values. If you’re not sure, it’s always good to try a bit of light conversation at the start of a cross-cultural business interaction, and   (assuming you’re trained in what to look for) you’ll quickly get the feedback you need to tell you how far to take it.

There are questions you can ask yourself to decide how Interpersonal or Transactional a person is:

· Are they really interested in “who I am” or just being polite?

· Have they asked me any non-business questions?

· Have they offered any information about themselves?

· Are price and quality their key decision-making criteria, or are trust and likeability their keys?

· Are relationships and connections a factor in making sales? Some people in more transactional cultures mistakenly believe that price and value are the only factors considered when making business decisions, but trust is an important consideration in many interpersonal cultures.

· Have you done quick background research to see if the person’s culture is more Interpersonal or Transactional?

Remember, people don’t necessarily need to be overtly friendly to be on the Interpersonal end of the scale. As a matter of fact, there are times when highly interpersonal people will appear to be unfriendly because they need to build trust before letting down their guard.

Just imagine how these pivotal factors influence negotiations, sales and marketing, product positioning, and social and business dealings.

Seeing Relationships on Multicultural Virtual Teams

You’ve probably already seen this in action. People from Transactional cultures (such as the US, Scandinavia, and Canada ) can walk into a meeting, say “hello,” shake hands and sit down to do business immediately without knowing the other person at all. A quick summary of the business goals is enough to get a team working. But this meeting looks very different with Interpersonal cultures (such as Latin America, India, and Southern Europe), where the same scenario could be seen as impersonal and rude. People spend time sharing meals and getting to know each other outside of business as well, all of which actually advances a business deal.

In the opening illustration, you can see where different national cultures are on the Relationship continuum, from Interpersonal to Transactional.

Know When to Adapt Your Cross-Cultural Work Style

Transactional cultures use legal systems and penalties to protect their rights. Businesses make sales and establish partnerships and alliances based on opportunity and circumstance, not on long-standing relationships. They enter these transactions with the assumption that if things don’t work out, they can use legal means to remedy the situation because their contracts are all-encompassing and binding.

But people from Interpersonal cultures believe that strong relationships and intertwining connections compel people to act honestly and fairly.That’s why you spend time getting to know each other on a personal level, and why referrals from colleagues and friends are so critical.

I saw this in action when I was invited to a destination wedding in Italy. A few days before the wedding, the wedding dress, which had been sent by messenger, had still not arrived and the bride’s family was completely distraught. The American father-of-the-bride was incensed and called the service, threatening them with a lawsuit. He got nowhere.

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An Italian colleague standing nearby overheard the conversation and asked for the phone. He explained to the courier company how dreadfully upset the bridal party was and how this was distressing the entire family. It was casting a pallor over the entire event. He mentioned nothing about the legal requirements of the on-time delivery, only the personal impact of the dress being late. The courier became very concerned and said he would do everything possible to deliver the dress the next morning. Sure enough, the dress showed up and the crisis was averted.

Individuals who are fully aware of these diverse cultural expectations – and can adapt their work styles – are well ahead in the global business arena.

Intercultural Negotiations Require Cross-Cultural Awareness

While you may not witness many such dramatic turnarounds in your everyday business life, it’s fair to say that colleagues from cultures who have different perspectives on the importance of relationship-building will have very diverse reactions.

For example, a major US power generating supplier I know once competed for a huge contract in Malaysia when the country was upgrading its power grid. At that time, Malaysia needed to attract local attention to capture the imagination of the world’s investment communities. This contract would become an enormous win for someone. All the companies bidding for the job convened their best sales teams for the competition. After the preliminaries, the competition came down to two companies – an American and a European.

Convinced that they could demonstrate greater efficiency and cost benefit than their competitor, the executives at the US company were feeling very confident.

Both companies had stellar reputations and excellent histories with the Malaysians, but the Europeans had invested heavily in Malaysia and seemed committed for the long-term. They had sponsored local events and had a significant team on the ground who met frequently with government officials and other decision-makers to be sure they completely understood the decision-making process. In other words, they were culturally aware of Malaysia’s Interpersonal Relationship nature, and invested accordingly.

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The negotiations that followed were intense, but you no doubt see where this story is heading. Ultimately, the Malays decided that their sense of trust and confidence in a long-standing partner who took time and effort to build a relationship was the most important selection criteria. They felt that if anything was to go wrong, their personal relationship with the European executives would be extremely valuable in making sure things were set right.

This high-stakes example shows how people from transactional societies are often simply unaware of the cultural potency of investing in longer-term relationships and trust.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter whether you’re from a Transactional or Interpersonal Relationship society. To make the most of your opportunities on the global stage you must be cross-culturally aware and review your assumptions about the needs of colleagues in the context of multicultural diversity. To be most effective, Take cues from your surroundings, observe the behavior of the people around you, and flex your work style.

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