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Book Review: Erin Meyer’s the Culture Map

June 8, 2016


If you were doing a workshop with a bunch of people from the Middle East on body language, and you wanted to show a video clip to demonstrate a point that would engage the audience, what would you use? Would you use the same material as you would with a Western audience? And would the body language you encounter in the Middle East send the same signals to Westerners? The answers to the second and third questions are sometimes and not necessarily. As for the first one, the answer in my experience is – wait for it – Mr Bean.

Whilst body language is a fairly obvious physical manifestation of a culture, much more lies beneath. “Cultural experts” make lots of money out of corporations by preparing them for what to expect when they set up business in a different country. Too often they focus on the superficial – manners, social etiquette and so forth – so that their employees can avoid faux pas that can kill relationships stone dead before they get the chance to develop.

But there are deeper questions to consider. How do you get the best out of a team in China? How do you negotiate in Japan, Brazil or Saudi Arabia? How do you get teams from India and the US to work effectively together?

I’ve worked in the UK, the Middle East and the US. I’ve helped set up businesses in several European countries, and I’ve worked with a number of multinationals in these countries. And in the process I’ve accumulated quite a few war stories about failures resulting from incorrect reading of situations and people. A few successes too, thanks mainly to experience gained from the failures.

I’ve been lucky to have had a business partner who is equally interested in such things. So over twenty-five years of working together we’ve had many conversations about doing business with Americans, Finns, Irish, French, Malaysians, and Hungarians, not to mention regions where one of us has more experience than the other – the Middle East in my case, and Africa in his.

What if one could find a fool-proof method of predicting how people will behave and interact with alien cultures, based on traits common to their home countries?

Up to a point, that’s what Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD, the French business school, is attempting to do in her recent book the Culture Map. There are a number of other tomes on the subject of multicultural understanding, one of which, Cultural DNA, I reviewed a while ago. Meyer’s book is relatively short and direct in comparison with, say, the work of Geert Hofstede, the granddaddy of cross-cultural research.

In the Culture Map, she looks at eight aspects of business culture: communications, performance feedback, persuasion, leadership and hierarchy, decision-making, trust, disagreement, and finally perceptions of time. As reference points she takes countries in each of the five populated continents and places them on a scale for each of the dimensions.

For example, when it comes to trusting, she distinguishes between task-based and relationship-based trust. Task-based trust is “simply business”. Do you perform well? Are you reliable? Do you have a track-record of trustworthiness? Are you easy to work with? Countries such as the US, Denmark and the Netherlands feature at the task-based end of the scale.

Relationship-based trust doesn’t recognise the boundaries between business and personal life. It’s built up by socialising as much as business interaction. If I experience the “whole you”, I will invest my trust in you, even if that trust takes a long time to build. Countries on this end of the scale include India, China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

On each dimension Meyer provides stories of misunderstanding resolved through better understanding of the other’s cultural traits. Most of them are based on her own experience.

The trust scale particularly chimes with my Saudi experience. Typically it takes time to build strong relationships with Saudis, and the whole process involves much more than mutual business interest. Coffee, lots of chat, doing stuff together, mutual hospitality are all important parts of the equation.

Curiously enough, my country, the UK, sits close to the middle of the scale. My own partnership reflects that ambivalence. While Ken and I were running our business in the UK, we would take very different approaches with our staff. He’s outgoing and gregarious. He socialised with the staff regularly.

I’m a little more reserved, and my interaction tended to be task-based. Yes, I’d go to the pub with a few of our people after work on the odd occasion, but not to the extent that any of them became friends. Whereas after we sold our UK businesses he stayed in touch with many of our staff, and still sees them when he’s in the country. And he’s done that throughout his career.

Meyer’s book is useful to me because she encapsulates a number of traits that I had experienced but had not considered systematically. I’m well aware of some of them, such as differences in treatment of time (see my recent post about the way Middle Easterners view time), and differing methods of persuasion (inductive versus deductive reasoning). But she provides valuable insights not just about what, but why.

The teaching of Confucius heavily influences hierarchical behaviour in China, for example. Deference to those higher up the pecking order, is the most commonly observed trait among China-watchers, but less obvious is the craving for harmony and order, and the responsibility of seniors towards their juniors. Then there’s the difference between China and Japan. Although they are both strongly hierarchical cultures, in Japan decisions require ground-up consensus. Whereas in China they tend to be made by leaders without reference to the lower ranks. This seems to explain why the Japanese take longer to make decisions than the Chinese.

She also emphasises the importance of framing when people from different cultures work together. If you outline your own cultural framework up front, and ask the other team to do the same, you can avoid misunderstandings and create a commonly-accepted way of working together.

The book ends with an example of a cultural map in which the differences between cultures can clearly be seen across each of her dimensions. If you create such a map, her theory goes, you can identify the potential areas of dysfunction and take steps to overcome them before they become critical issues.

The potential issues arising from a team with a mañana culture working with another for which time is a commodity to be used or lost is one obvious bear trap.

The Culture Map is full of stories illustrating these cultural differences, and Meyer provides advice for each dimension on how to overcome them. Her work is a great primer for companies planning to set up in new territories, for managers who find themselves leading multinational teams, and for employees assigned on overseas postings in countries with which they’re not familiar.

But I found myself looking for more. It’s all very broad-brush, and it doesn’t address how cultures are changing with globalisation, and how national traits can be overridden by leaders of organisations. Also, by ascribing generic traits to individual countries, it ignores the fact that many countries have multiple cultures. Do Texans think and behave in the same ways as Californians? Do Londoners share the same culture as Mancunians or Liverpudlians? Do Saudis from the cosmopolitan western city of Jeddah think the same way as natives of Riyadh?

What about countries with a strong multicultural mix? London, for example, has a mish-mash of cultures that reflect the different ethnic and social groups that live and work there. It’s not English any more. It’s international.

And what about individual organisations? Does IBM have the same culture in the US as Apple or Amazon? To what extent have the personalities of Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs overridden typical “American traits”?

It would take more than the 250 pages of the Culture Map to answer those questions, yet they’re just as important as Meyer’s broad-brush observations. So when we’re looking to understand how to negotiate with Alibaba, we need not only to understand the culture of China and the personality of Jack Ma. We need to know how the bit of Alibaba we’re dealing with works, which also depends on the location and the sub-cultures of the organisation’s different components.

So if I was doing Meyer’s job as a consultant to multinationals, I would be looking for tools that enabled me to analyse much more than eight basic traits that characterise a dozen countries, fascinating though they are.

Many moons ago, a colleague and I came up with a rough guide for predicting corporate cultures by observing external phenomena. The look of the furniture; open plan or cubicles; the state of people’s desks; what sort of corporate stuff was on the walls and notice boards; the prominence given to organisation charts and mission statements; the way people dressed; the design of the front office; the attitude of the staff. Not very scientific, but enough to provide some indication of how that organisation was likely to behave in business interactions.

These days we have other indicators. Gossip via the social media; sophisticated external communications teams; the fallout from frequent reorganisations, mergers and demergers; short-term neurosis about share price performance.

When you hear a person complaining (as I did recently) that “I’ve been sliced and diced, my job has been defined and redefined, my company merged, split up and renamed three times in the past ten years”, what does that tell you about the culture in that person’s organisation? Depends on the reasons for the changes, of course. It could indicate a workplace that values agility and flexibility. On the other hand, that organisation could be populated by hardened survivors – cynics who are hanging on like grim death.

If these changes are designed to “enhance shareholder value” (or the CEO’s bank balance), or to ensure the survival of a struggling enterprise, to what extent does company culture trump national traits? And above all, how do we figure all this stuff out?

Complex questions, and way beyond the scope of the Culture Map. So this is no criticism of Meyer’s work, but an observation that more can be done to read companies, cultures, teams and individuals – not just at a fixed point in time but on a regular, self-updating basis.

There are tools out there, such as team psychometrics and engagement surveys that can go some of the way, but those I’m aware of don’t factor in national, local and corporate cultural influences on thinking and action.

When I was thinking about this piece I came across an interesting article by a couple of professional mediators on how to prepare for cross-cultural negotiations. I would certainly find it useful, but it falls some way short of providing a framework that takes the donkey-work out of the process.

I’m pretty sure that there are other academics out there actively working on ways to map cultural genomes in a way that makes sense and doesn’t cost a fortune. Perhaps Erin Meyer herself is working on this.

Until they come up with something better and less expensive, it will continue to take experience and know-how to predict the reaction of a stable and valued workforce to suddenly having to apply for their own jobs (as happened to Digital before its demise in the late 1990s). Also to work out how best to integrate two businesses with dramatically different cultures when they are suddenly merged into one. Too often the outcome, in my experience, ends as the worst, not the best, of both worlds.

And could we not come up with more sophisticated techniques before we intervene in the affairs of other countries, and when we’re negotiating peace deals or resolving less consequential conflicts?

Be that as it may, I would have found the Culture Map a useful companion when I first set off to do business in foreign lands. Would I have been more effective in my subsequent career?

Quite possibly. But then I wouldn’t have nearly as many memories of embarrassing disasters and triumphs over adversity to laugh about in my senescent years. After all, an easy life isn’t always an interesting one.

  1. Abdullah Wallace permalink

    Hi Steve. A great piece showing the real depth of understanding you have. Thank you. AJ

    • You’re very kind Abdullah! The great thing about books like Meyer’s is that they remind us how much about human nature remains unfathomable. And that’s no bad thing. Ramadan Kareem.

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