Enabling Intercultural Collaboration (or…how to stop flying under the radar!)

We often hear the term ‘flying below the radar’ in global organisations.  It’s a catch cry that tends to originate from the non-HQ countries in multi-nationals who don’t necessarily see the benefit of doing what HQ is asking of them and so they go rogue…fly under the radar…and get on with business in a way that makes sense to them.

But are they really going rogue?  And could the notion of ‘flying under the radar’ really be a misplaced assumption that does more damage than good when seeking to build stronger global approaches to working?

To make sense of how this could happen (either the assumption or the reality), and therefore be positioned to make some different decisions, we need to get to the heart of why we feel the need to fly under the radar.  The answer could be simpler than we realise; not that it may make it any easier to deal with in some circumstances.  In the book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, (Hofstede, Hofstede, Minkov: 2010), there are many ideas offered that shed light on the topic; in this article we will look at two of them in brief.

One Size Does Not Fit All
Management policy, techniques or directives formulated in one country, through a particular cultural lens may not be so suitable for all countries in the network.  How often do we see it that a single way of working (or conducting business) is identified, and then combined into a nice looking booklet or powerpoint presentation, and then massed produced and pushed out to all countries in the network, sometimes accompanied with training and additional resources.  Not long after frustrations tend to surface due to lack of take up, or we suspect that the whilst the dashboard or metrics may look good, we are hearing that this isn’t really what’s happening on the ground.  In these situations two things tend to occur.  Either we push harder and force people to explain show what they are doing (think forcing a square peg into a round hole!) or we review the way the initiative was implemented, in most cases, through a change management lens.  And whilst this provides some insight, there is an additional lens that we often fail to acknowledge that could have positively impacted the implementation.  National culture.

Let’s use an example most of us can relate to; annual performance objectives and appraisals.  Management by objectives based approaches may work perfectly fine in cultures where it is culturally acceptable to sit down and explore – or even negotiate – with your manager around what your objectives will be throughout the year, and then in the annual appraisal be given a voice and a right to reply regarding your rating.  In other cultures though where the reliance on hierarchy is significant, and top down leadership is the accepted norm, there isn’t an accompanying mindset or in many cases a developed skill set to make an approach like this work. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; it just isn’t a natural (or in some cases known) way of working.  So it makes more sense to fly under the radar; offer up some lip service to HQ and tell them that the new way of doing appraisals is working, and then just get on with business as usual.  Whilst I’m using the example of appraisals here, there have been many other situations I’ve seen over the years relating to global standardization of business processes where the ability to fly under the radar becomes a refined art form, and perhaps an unspoken means of survival in the network.

Enabling Cross-Cultural Interaction
The second element is the way in which things are communicated from HQ out to the countries in the network.  Again, our cultural lens plays a role in how we communicate a message.  Is it from a top down position, or a more collaborative, or ‘on the level’ position.  Are we providing the right amount of detail or too much detail?  Just as importantly, is how the receiver would prefer to receive the message so that we enable them to respond.  Think about your culture and natural ways of communicating; how will this style be received in a different country?  Just as we think about the influence of our individual personalities on how we communicate within our teams or with colleagues, the same principle applies with intercultural communication.  The key is as much about understanding who is sending the message, as it is who will be receiving the message.   

To highlight this point, you only need to think of those times when you have felt a deep sense of discomfort with what is being asked of you.  For those in a culture where hierarchy, power and collectivist thinking are accepted pillars of society, being asked to challenge up line, provide negative or critical feedback will not come easy; not because there isn’t any independent thought on the topic, rather, the means to offer such feedback may not be as well developed as in a more egalitarian society where debate and challenging the norm is culturally accepted.  This leads to flying under the radar from a compliance and respect perspective; not wanting to offend and to save face.  It is likely that it could also be originating from a position of wanting to maintain harmony in the relationship with HQ.  

If we reverse the above example, and the communication originated from a country that holds hierarchy and societal power to be core cultural elements, there will still be a measure discomfort and an increased desire to ‘fly under the radar’ in more egalitarian and individualist countries, however more from a rebellious perspective.

What’s important to understand is that neither of these approaches are better than the other; they both have advantages and disadvantages; but understanding a little bit about the cultural ways of being will help tremendously when working out a change or communication strategy for more than one country.

In the above examples I have only considered two or three of the six dimensions researched and created by Prof Hofstede and other intercultural experts that are available to us when exploring how we can improve performance between countries and reduce the instances of ‘flying under the radar’. 

Yet immediately it is possible to start seeing how one way of thinking doesn’t translate into all ways of thinking.  We also have the generational impact to consider, as we do the fact that there are always outliers in any system or culture.  This simply reinforces the importance of understanding who will be receiving your message; building a rapport with your audience on both the relational level and around the message you want to send.  When we remember that the way we think drives our behaviour, then it makes sense that purely focusing on the behavioural and aesthetic aspects of implementing a large scale initiative will not be enough to drive the change or engagement you are looking for.  

The good news?  In my experience, taking some time out during the design phase of a new initiative to understand the countries and cultures who will be receiving the message, and therefore the way in which they would prefer to receive the message, can save you a lot of bother down the track.  In global organisations there is an inevitability that faux pas’ will happen; this is almost a given.  However a couple of hours exploring, and seeking to understand more about the cultures and people from which we want something, tends to yield greater tolerance when things go wrong, along with heightened engagement and performance.

Ponte Valle Insight: Enabling Intercultural Collaboration (or…how to stop flying under the radar!)

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