It is December 1998, I am 25 years old. I’m in my first job out of corporate college, working for a Danish company that had acquired a Swedish firm a year earlier. Full of energy, optimism and confidence, I’m sent to Sweden as a “product and systems expert” to teach our Swedish colleagues to sell the products and use the systems of the Danish company. Fast forward a few months and I’m back in my boss’ office, frustrated and in dire need of advice.
“What should I do?” I asked him. “I have traveled around Sweden, worked hard, and it’s not working. I show them what to do, I’ve prepared nice presentation slides, I have designed handy instruction books outlining the best hints, I offer my help, and it does not seem to be working.”
My boss smiles and says calmly: “Sit down, and I will share some wisdom with you.” In that meeting I learned possibly the most important thing about dealing with a new environment. The lesson boils down to what Steven Covey once said: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
It took me some time to learn that there can even be significant cultural differences between two Scandinavian countries. It took even more time to understand what was causing the cultural clash. Swedish business culture is known for being driven by consensus-based decision taking. As a Danish person I was not used to it and misread that as indecisiveness, which caused a lot of frustration in the beginning.
But my early mishaps cannot be explained by cultural differences alone. Much more than that it was about my inexperience and lack of earlier direction which reduced the impact that I had at the beginning of my expatriation in Sweden. But after getting that advice from my boss, things started to turn around and my six-month stay was extended to two years as the cooperation with the Swedish colleagues developed very positively.
“Swedish business culture is known for being driven by consensus-based decision taking.”
The experience in Sweden helped me tremendously when I moved to Poland in 2000 following another acquisition, then to Ireland in 2006 after yet another merger, before returning to Poland in 2011. It also helped me in my personal life, being married to a Polish woman.
National cultures definitely have a lot of impact on how we act, but there are many other aspects to consider: education, gender, social environment, work experience and hobbies are all elements that shape our beliefs and behavior. An 18-year-old Dane from Copenhagen probably has more in common with an 18-year-old Varsovian than with his own father.
Business is global, customer demand changes swiftly, new market entrants appear every day and technologies redefine job functions. As business leaders we need to make sure we can respond to such an environment by ensuring that we see what is going on and knowing how to deal with that. That requires cultural diversity across all levels of the organization.
We need to understand the culture of the new market place when we want to conquer a new market, be it a new country, or a new customer segment. What client behavior can we expect in this market place? Do they pay their invoices on time? What kind of marketing campaigns do they react to? How do they respond to uncertainty?
The latter is a common cause of cultural clashes in Poland, as Poles have an exceptionally high aversion to the unknown. According to Geert Hofstede’s findings, Poland scores 93 (out of 100) on the “uncertainty avoidance” scale, while the US scores 46 (www.geerthofstede.com).
This can have a great effect on how projects are approached in Poland vs. the US. Poles devote a lot more time to the planning and analysis stage. They analyze data and potential risk much more thoroughly in the early stages of a project in order to allow for a smooth and rapid implementation once the project is greenlit. Americans, on the other hand, are very comfortable with the “trial and error” approach. They see no problem in taking a step back and re-evaluating the situation if a mistake has been made. They are less discouraged by failures. While the Polish approach may seem too restrained and not daring enough to Americans, the US approach may easily be misconstrued as chaotic and misguided.
When starting a project, we need to ensure that the necessary mix of experiences is in place. The person responsible for the project must make room for a discussion about competence and experience, including national and cultural differences, but also personality traits. This discussion will not only avert a lot of potential frustration but also increase efficiencies and reduce risks. Without this discussion upfront, an American participant may easily become discouraged when working on a Polish-led project.
When we move services or production to another country, we need to understand the culture of the country in order to be ready to deal with decision making, goal setting, feedback, conflict management, empowerment, etc. We also need to understand the individuals who we will work with, as their personalities may differ greatly from the stereotypes we’ve been taught to ascribe to the country’s culture.
WHAT TO DO?
First and foremost, we need to understand the importance of dealing with cultural differences, which is unavoidable when we start to deal with new people. We should take advantage of the diversity and talk openly about it. We should act on it by ensuring cultural diversity across the organization and making sure that decisions are taken and processes are designed with this in mind.
External consultants can assist in the stage of creating the necessary understanding and implementation in the organization. Personality and behavioral analysis can be helpful both in the process of understanding the issue and later on when we start making decisions that will ensure that instead of being hindered by cultural diversity, we can capitalize on it.
Søren Jensen has worked and lived in Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland. He has 25 years of corporate experience within the financial industry and 10 years of leadership experience including sales management, strategy and organizational change. He worked for Danske Bank and DNB Bank Poland before joining Dale Carnegie in 2017. He graduated from Copenhagen Business School and the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne.