Room for Improvement
Coaching global managers, I often am asked ‘What should I do differently or be aware of, when working with people in a different culture?’ Of course, there are do-and-don’t checklists for adapting to different cultures, and you can follow trainings on culturally-appropriate behaviours. What if we took a different approach and focused on improving what we already do well – on what we can learn from each other? Let’s start by exploring two crosscultural value differences, which I believe are potential areas for improvement and growth in our own behaviour.
Perception of Time
When you work in Western time zones, in major international cities, or in globally-present corporate cultures, time is mostly perceived as the equivalent of money - a precious resource never to be wasted. Meetings are planned to the minute; schedules are fully packed days ahead. Being late is not an option, as it is perceived as unprofessional or a loss of face, and can lead to missing out on profitable business opportunities. In a nutshell, time has to be controlled, no matter what! People in controlled time cultures, typically become very skilled at:
• being reliable – specific time arrangements are to be respected as promises
• committing – being punctual or even coming early and waiting
• showing respect – for other peoples’ time, not wasting it by running late. Things are quite different in fluid-time cultures. In the MENA region, similarly to Latin America or Southern Europe, time is perceived as fluid, not to be controlled. Like a river flowing through a village, it is steered by nature such as animals, weather conditions, water quality and so on. The river simply is a tool to swim in, a source of nutrition or
a meeting point; nobody expects people to control the entire life of a river. Likewise, time is a tool used for making mutual appointments. Life happens and therefore it’s ok to run late, postpone or even reschedule last minute. Time and date are understood as guides rather than something that has to be controlled. People living and working in communities with fluid-time culture are like surfers on virtual rivers. They typically become very skilled at: • trusting the right thing will happen when the time is right – inshallah!
• staying flexible and showing readiness to reschedule meetings, instead of clinging to a plan
• prioritising relationships and people over business matters.
What comes first, the relationship or the business?
Trust is crucial for doing business in the MENA as well as Western areas of our globe, no doubt. Trustbuilding, however, can be done in two fundamentally different ways. In Western task-oriented cultures, trust is mostly gained through delivering quality, acting reliably, subscribing to punctuality and performing with consistent excellency. It’s no more important than having a well-known family name, being a member of the party in power, being wealthy or having obtained a position in the army. Education is generally accessible, and jobs are available, hence for the majority, a strong education and profound personal commitment are the starting points for a promising career. Benefits of task-oriented cultures include
• self direction
• independent problem-solving
• transparent communication
• goal-setting and result focus However, this is not how things always used to be. Asking our grandparents or going back to smaller villages in the countryside, we may find examples of how trust was built through relationships, not that long ago. We used to be the son or daughter of the village teacher, priest or doctor. If a member of the village community was in need, neighbours or wealthy community members would help – out of obligation. Grown-up children would look out for elderly relatives, and trust was inherited, passed along from generation to generation. Let’s recall the benefits of relationship cultures:
• a reliable network no matter what • long-lasting friendships to rely on
• knowing whom to trust
• belonging to a community Back in the MENA area, relationships generally belong to the abovedescribed communal culture. The ground rule is simple; build relationships to rely on, resulting in strong ties that will last, no matter what. Business matters will then be taken care of even on short notice or if they require going the extra mile to honour an existing friendship.
A Real-Life Example
My dear and very generous friend Sam called me one time, quite puzzled, asking for advice. Sam was moving house and had decided to donate his kitchen equipment to an organisation that educates refugees. After a discussion over the phone, Paula, the manager, agreed to come to Sam’s house to collect the equipment herself. Sam, who strongly believes in volunteering and supporting young people’s education, was very excited to meet Paula, and was even considering getting involved as a volunteer. When Paula showed up on Sam’s doorstep with two helpers, Sam opened the door with a huge smile, welcoming them into his living room where he had neatly and mindfully piled his kitchen items. After a brief hello, Paula walked towards the items, pulled out some bags she had brought along, and started to pack. My friend offered refreshments, expecting them to first sit down and have a chat, (as he was used to doing in the local culture.) Paula, caught by surprise, mumbled something about being in a hurry. While the two young men were packing up the kitchen equipment, Sam kept trying to start a conversation with Paula, who was juggling phone calls and trying to direct the others. Once everything was packed, the young men withdrew to the balcony, and Sam saw his chance to have a quiet moment with Paula. Mentioning his professional background as a coach as well as his fluency in the local language, Sam was hinting at his interest in volunteering. That’s when Paula said: ‘Thank you, Sam, very much for your donation. On our website you will find the email address that you can use to contact us’. She then ordered an Uber car, and asked the young men to bring the packed bags and boxes to the main entrance, to be ready once the car would arrive. After a short chat with the young men (who were