By Anton Vanhoucke

The Culture Map – cultural dimensions for teamwork

hand using sound mixing console

Working with people from different cultures can feel like a challenge. They can have incompatible habits and expectations. Most people are flexible, but trouble begins when these expectations remain implicit. The Culture Map by Erin Meyer gave me a set of lenses to help clarify expectations and hopefully prevent trouble. I’m sharing my notes in this article so you might apply these lenses too when collaborating in a diverse team. If you’re interested, I suggest reading the entire book because it contains many clarifying anecdotes!

Applying the culture map in a team context

Most mixed teams can work if you’re explicit about team culture. You can decide within the team how tightly you want to schedule meetings or how directive you want leadership to be. Just don’t leave it to the assumptions everyone brings from their cultural background.

However, building mono-cultural teams for speed in a less complex context can make sense. The team will lose less energy in inevitable cultural friction.

Another exception is when you’re leading a team with a different culture than yours. Some cultural flexibility from your side goes a long way when building a connection with your team.

High context – low context

High-context communication and low-context communication refer to two different communication styles. The main differences between these two communication styles are:

  1. Context: In high-context communication, much of the meaning is conveyed through the context, such as the physical setting, the relationship between the communicators, and the nonverbal cues used. In contrast, low-context communication relies more heavily on explicit verbal messages to convey meaning and less on context.
  2. Directness: High-context communication tends to be more indirect, with the speaker using hints, suggestions, and nonverbal cues to convey their message. In contrast, low-context communication tends to be more direct, with the speaker using clear, explicit language to convey their message.
  3. Relationship: High-context communication is often used in cultures where relationships are valued highly. The focus is on maintaining harmony and preserving relationships, even sacrificing individual needs. In contrast, low-context communication is often used in cultures where individualism is valued more than relationships. The focus is on efficiency and getting the job done, even if it means being more direct or confrontational.
  4. Cultural differences: High-context communication is more common in collectivistic cultures, such as Asia and the Middle East. Low-context communication is more common in individualistic cultures, such as the United States and Western Europe.

The differences between high-context and low-context communication are rooted in cultural values. They can significantly impact how people communicate and interact.

Before you think: “We’re working Agile, low-context is just best! Transparency rules!” Hold your horses. Even in Agile teams, people have sensitivities when it comes to feedback. So it might pay to be a little more circumvent. Furthermore, high-context cultures find it rude if you spell everything out to them explicitly multiple times. They take pride in reading subtexts and picking up subtle cues.

Negative feedback: direct or indirect?

In some cultures, such as Nordic cultures, direct negative feedback is more common. In these cultures, people value honesty and directness and may feel that indirect feedback is dishonest or insincere. Direct negative feedback tends to be more straightforward and to the point. The speaker uses clear and explicit language to convey their criticism. They might even use upgraders – such as “very” or “extremely” – to stress their point.

In contrast, indirect negative feedback is more common in cultures like the UK and Japan. In these cultures, people value saving face and maintaining harmony in relationships. Direct criticism can be seen as confrontational and disrespectful, so indirect negative feedback tends to be more subtle and less explicit. The speaker may use downgraders – such as “maybe” or “a little bit” – but still be adamant about their feedback. You’d better not mistake it for a suggestion.

Not that this is a different dimension than low and high context. Some cultures, like France and Russia, might be high-context but value directness regarding negative feedback. While the UK and, to some extent, the US value explicitness in regular messages, but can be very indirect with negative feedback.

An often-heard feedback principle is a 3:1 ratio between positive and negative feedback. With the cultural differences in mind, you will notice that this is a principle from US business literature. Dutch people might find this circumvent and prefer you come to the point so they can start fixing the problem.

Principles-first or applications-first

In applications-first cultures, people begin persuading with facts, statements, or conclusions and later add concepts to explain. The preference is, to begin with an executive summary. Discussions are practical and concrete instead of theoretical or philosophical.

In principles-first cultures, this is the other way around. People begin with general theories and principles to find common ground. They carefully build up to their conclusion with supporting facts, disagreeing facts, and a final balance. A careful and crisp thinking process is very persuasive in this environment.

Italy and France are on the principles-first side. The US, Canada, and Australia are on the down-to-earth applications-first side.

Egalitarian or hierarchical: power distance

The distance between boss and subordinate – the power distance – is the measure of this cultural dimension.

In egalitarian cultures, the distance between a boss and a subordinate is low. The best boss is a facilitator among equals. Organizational structures are flat, and skipping hierarchical lines is acceptable.

On the other hand, hierarchical cultures favor strong bosses who lead from the front. Status is essential, and communication follows the organizational lines. You do not question the order before executing it.

Consensual or quick decision-making

Power distance is different from the decision-making flow. Some very hierarchical cultures, like Japan, have a very consensual decision-making preference. Decision-making is careful and slow and preserves harmony. Once the decision is made, execution is swift because everyone is on board. You can be sure people stick to their decision.

Hierarchical decision-making cultures make quick decisions and fix the mess later. They might change the decision later or start convincing people after the boss makes the decision.

Trusting: task-based or relationship-based

Task-based trusting means building practical business agreements and coding that into a contract, written or verbal. A dependable legal system ensures that contracts are fulfilled. Past achievements mean a lot for building trust.

Relationship-based cultures put more emphasis on personal connection. Social interaction comes before business discussions. Lengthy lunches or parties make perfect sense because they are a great way of establishing mutual understanding.  

Disagreeing: confrontational or harmonious

Disagreeing is not negative feedback. It just means you have a different opinion on the way forward. Some cultures find the clash of perspectives positive and enriching. The Dutch say: without rubbing, it won’t shine. Other cultures take no risks with group harmony and relationships. They avoid confrontation as much as possible. Confrontation is dangerous as people tend to identify with their values and opinions. These cultures have subtle ways of sharing different viewpoints.

This cultural dimension is tricky because not all cultures are equally emotionally expressive. Danish, Dutch, and Germans avoid emotions in their confrontations and focus on the facts. They find emotions are in the way of a rational impersonal discussion. Showing anger in a disagreement is a sign of poor self-control.

On the other hand, Greek and French are very expressive in their disagreement. They might gesticulate, show anger, or show frustration. It is a sign of passion and caring. After a heated discussion, they can reconcile and respect the differences. 

Tread lightly in unexpressive, unconfrontational cultures like Korea. You might hurt feelings and miss subtle cues. Hurt feelings are not quickly forgiven or forgotten, potentially ruining relationships. 

Finally, don’t mistake emotional expressiveness in Saudi Arabia or Mexico for permission to confront. You will suffer from their expressiveness for a long time if you do. 

Scheduling: linear-time or flexible-time

The final cultural dimension is about the experience of time. Highly industrialized, highly predictable cultures value predictability to the minute. You’d better be on time or even early. 

Cultures with a more turbulent recent history go with the flow and value the moment more. Time is flexible, and the activity’s length depends on the moment’s flow. If things are interesting, there’s no point in stopping on time because the next event might be late or not even happening.

Cultural relativity

Germans might find the French awfully high-context. But the Chinese might find the French shockingly explicit and low-context. It’s all relative to your point of view. Keep that in mind when dealing with different cultures. 

It’s even relative between company cultures in the same country or between family members in the same family. It’s all a matter of preference, and most systems work fine internally.

So what is the ideal culture?

I’m not sure the ideal is the middle of each scale. I like the diversity. The cultural dimensions help me practice cultural flexibility. I’m more aware that not everyone shares my preferences. That awareness helps me build more and better relationships.

Leave a Reply