Problem Solving Around The World

Have you ever wondered how different cultures approach problem solving in different ways? Here’s a quick, satirical, but not entirely inaccurate perspective on different approaches to problem solving.

How Does Your Culture Approach Problem Solving?

  1. German: I don’t know how to do this, but I’ll figure it out.
  2. Swiss: I don’t know how to do this, but we’ll figure it out.
  3. Indian: I don’t know how to do this, so we can’t do it.
  4. Chinese: I don’t know how to do this, but we can copy it to show our respect.
  5. Japanese: I don’t know how to do this, but we’ll figure it out, make it smaller, faster, and add some features.
  6. Spanish: I don’t know how to do this, but there’s plenty of time to work on it tomorrow.
  7. American: I don’t know how to do this, so we’ll buy it.
  8. Mexican: I don’t know how to do this, so I’ll work on something else right now.
  9. Italian: I don’t know how to do this, so let’s do something we know how to do very nicely.
  10. English: I don’t know how to do this, so we’ll build a team to tackle the job.
  11. French: I know how to do this.
  12. Russian: I know how to do this better than you.

Of course, country culture is much more complicated and this is just a humorous take on first impressions some cultures may give off. Really want to know how one culture might approach problem solving? Take a look at this post about negotiation styles.

What Is “Saving Face” In Other Cultures?

What does “saving face” really mean? Westerners tend to think “face” means preserving one’s reputation… but that’s not right. It’s particularly important in high-context cultures, including most of Asia and the Middle East, where tradition is highly valued and the interests of the group outweigh the interests of the individual.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International and I wanted to speak briefly about “what is saving face.” Face is a collectivist notion. It’s something that applies in many Eastern cultures and as such it’s an extremely foreign idea to Western culture.

Misunderstanding “Saving Face”

So, here’s an example of how not understanding face can go wrong with Western and Eastern interaction. Let’s say you are a Western Manager, applying western management theory. So, if one person does a particularly good job, the natural thing to do is to reward that person, to call them out and tell them they did a better job, possibly give them a raise or some kind of a reward within the firm.

But, in Asian society, this actually sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is saying that the individual failed in their responsibility, to their group, to their fellow employees, because that person did not show those individuals how to perform well. So, the net result is you tell one person that they didn’t do a good job, and you tell the entire group that they also failed to do a good job, in this respect. It backfires terribly when Western managers do that with Eastern cultures. And this is a great example on why it is so important to really understand what face is whenever you are doing business with the East or the Middle East.

What is Face?

It was first defined by David Ho, a social scientist working in Hong Kong. He basically defines saving face as saying that face is lost when an individual, or someone who is closely related or connected to that individual, act in a way that fails to meet the social obligations that are set up for that person. In other words, if they don’t meet their social responsibility with family, with work, with their friends, then they loose face.

In Asia and the Middle East, having face is a very bankable notion. It is a literal translation, or a literal representation, of your status in society, of your reputation and your abilities to fulfill your obligation within that social network. Because collectivist societies are so tightly integrated and tightly social, there is only one face. Social, work, family, it’s all integrated into a single representation of who that person is. That means that your face at work and your face at home can be damaged in the same way.

If you’d like to see another take on saving face, check out this short video (the bit on saving face is in the latter half of the video).

Managing Time In Different Cultures

Meeting deadlines and managing project workflows when working with people from different nationalities can be one of the most challenging aspects of managing intercultural business relationships. Different cultures have very different perspectives when it comes to the importance and flow of time.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Somebody asked me recently how different cultures think about time, and I thought the best way to explain that would be with a short story.

Recently, I moderated a panel, here in the United States. In order to prepare for the panel I put together about seven slides that introduced the topic, which was the global economy, and each of the panel members. But, when I ran those slides by the panel coordinator, she was really concerned that I would take too much time. I had seven slides, she told me I had only four minutes, to go through the entire introduction.

So we start the panel presentation, everything goes great. We get through the introduction, less than four minutes, and we start the panelist’s portion. Now, during the panelist’s presentation, she is sitting right up in front, where I can see her, holding up cards to show us how much time is left. 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5… 2… and the last card, a big zero on it, to show that we are done. You have to stop now. So we end up wrapping up the panel at exactly 60 minutes, when the panel coordinator comes up to the podium and makes it clear that we’re done, even though there were still a lot of people raising their hands and wanting to ask questions. This is typical in the United States, and few other Western cultures where time is so important — it rules all.

Now lets compare this to my very first experience teaching, offering  a presentation, in Asia. I went there with all of these preconceptions about how important time is. As I was preparing for the presentation, I asked the Project Manager, how much time should I take and he said, “ohh… you know, about an hour. That’s fine. You do whatever you think is right.” Well, being American, I planned exactly for one hour.

Now, the next day, when the presentation starts, I’m really stressed out. Because it’s 10 o’clock, we are supposed to be starting, and people are just starting to show up. I hurriedly asked the Project Manager, “Do you want me to shrink the presentation, because we are late, I could pull it down to 45 minutes or so.” And he says, “Oh, you know, if you think that’s right, you do whatever you think is best. 45 minutes would be fine.” So, on the fly, I cut pieces out and we wrap it up in 45 minutes.

The presentation went well, but afterwards when I am talking with the Project Manager, he asked me, “Why did you finish so soon? Everybody was loving it! They had so many questions! We could have gone for another hour, or another two.” So it turns out that I had sent the wrong message. I had said that my time was more important than spending time with the group, answering their questions.

It’s important when we are working in a multinational context to be flexible and to be observant. To ask somebody, what does the local culture expect and to look for hints. I would have been better served to have paused the presentation and ask the Project Manager, “Do we need to finish up now? Does the team need to get back to work? Or should we keep going?” Remember that particularly in Asia, the focus won’t be on time, it’s going to be on developing a relationship… the focus is going be on you.

Most Common Global Communication Mistakes

Getting past communication problems is one of the first challenges that comes up in global relationship building. In the best case, our cultural mistakes can be amusing, but more often they can give offense and cost us money. Here are few common mistakes to avoid when making your first foray abroad.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. We coach our clients on five different business cultural preferences that apply around the globe, in different cultures and in different business settings, and each one of these are extremely important. But today, I want to talk about common communication mistakes that people make when going from one culture to another in a business environment.

The first one is assuming that business culture and business practices around the world are more or less the same as they are at home. So for example, westerners tend to be very direct. They get right to the point, they want to dive into business and start negotiating right away. But many Eastern cultures tend to be more conservative. They want to build a relationship first, they want to get to know you, before they decide whether or not they should be doing business with you. So, this is just one example of how an initial meeting, when these two cultures come together, can result in a clash.

Another mistake can be putting too much attention just on the words that have been exchanged. So, what I mean by that is, Westerners might take a discussion and turn it into a contract, and look to that contract as the embodiment of the relationship. What was agreed and signed is how business should be conducted. But this doesn’t really work too well throughout most of the world. The Middle East, Asia, South America — it’s the relationship that’s more important. The contract tends to be a guideline, an initiation of that relationship. But over time the expectation is that the relationship will rule over the contract. Mutual health, mutual well being, is more important. So, what was agreed should change and this can result in a conflict where Westerners tend to be perceived as rigid, whereas other cultures are looking at them wondering, “Well, why aren’t you concerned about how well off we are together, about our future together?”

And the third point I want to mention is: Not looking deeper than just the communication and the words that are being exchanged. Multinational business and cross-cultural leadership are very complicated, because it brings a lot of different business cultural preferences into play. For example, how do different cultures think about time — is the schedule going to rule all? Or it is more important to take your time and make the right decisions and think about the long term?

It’s different from one individual to another. So, when I’m talking about East versus West, these are generalizations and it’s important to realize that generalizations don’t apply to individuals. You’ll meet Easterners that are extremely westernized and you’ll meet Westerners that are extremely easternized. But the important thing to understand is that every company has it’s own culture and just trying to push two companies together usually results in problems.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

There are many reasons for communication failure. What is said may not be received exactly the way the sender intended. Different business cultures view directness, harmony, saving face, and confrontation in different ways. How do these differences affect communication, and how do you overcome the obstacles?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about overcoming communication barriers. It’s important to understand that throughout the business world English is usually a second, third or fourth language for people — even though it is a commonly used business dialect.

Fluency takes years and includes slang and idioms and local references. For example, in the U.S. you might hear, “If this doesn’t work we’re sunk” or “that’s a home run,” which is a baseball reference of course. In India someone might say, “you are gone,” to mean that their position isn’t very positive. And, I’ve had people stand up and storm out of a room saying “that’s it, I quit,” but it’s sarcasm and I know they just mean they need a break.

In an international setting it’s best to avoid sarcasm and slang, and even jokes. Instead slow the conversation down. Give your partner time to digest what has been said, so that they can understand it and ask questions if they need to.

Also, be very aware of body language. It’s very easy to misinterpret body language. The Indian head waggle, for instance, many Westerners will assume that it means “yes” because, more or less, it looks like a “yes,” but it isn’t. It definitely doesn’t mean “yes.” Instead, ask questions when you see something you don’t understand and look for multiple confirmations, so that you know that the message is properly understood.

Our number one tip for the Westerners — don’t assume that agreement means agreement. Many cultures are very much oriented on preserving harmony and preserving face, so they won’t be confrontational. They won’t directly say “no” and they won’t be terribly critical. And for Easterners, our tip is: When your Western partner seems to be overly confrontational and critical, don’t immediately assume they mean offense. They may not. Perhaps they’re being open, honest and direct.

What Is Monochronic?

Different cultures view time along a spectrum with monochronic or polychronic at either end. When planning to do business overseas it’s a good idea to understand which end of the spectrum your native culture falls closest to, and where your overseas partner’s time orientation lies. Zacharias Beckman guides you through what it’s like to be “monochronic” in this week’s video blog.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about monochronic time orientation. Do you feel that being late is unprofessional? Or that, your entire day could be thrown out of wrack if you are delayed just a little bit?

Monochronic cultures tends to be focused on the schedule — on doing one thing after another, usually in sequence. Sometimes this is called sequential orientation. Western cultures are very monochronic. Particularly countries like the United States, or perhaps Switzerland or Germany. In the west its common to schedule a day full of meetings, back to back, maybe eight meetings in one day. Agendas end promptly and move into the next meeting, one right after the other.

This approach doesn’t work too well in the east and middle east where culture is polychronic. Polychronic cultures have other priorities and this western schedule driven approach can send the wrong message and often offend the people that you are meeting with.

This sequential approach, this focus on time, is very often a problem when working with eastern or middle eastern cultures, which tend to be polychronic. Polychronic cultures have very different priorities and they think about time differently. By focusing on the schedule, the wrong message can be sent, and misunderstandings can result.

Who Is My Outsourced Team’s Decision Maker?

When it comes to decision making, it’s important to know who is the decision maker at your overseas partner or vendor (and it might not be who you expect)! Business culture around the world varies a lot. It’s very likely you will experience misunderstandings when Western and Eastern firms work together. Here are some tips on how to avoid the misunderstandings.

I’m Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about who it is at your partner firm, overseas, that actually makes decisions. You might be quite surprised to find out who can and who cannot make decisions. For example, let’s say you’re Asian, Chinese or Indian, and you’re working with a European firm. You might be completely shocked when a subordinate seems to go out on his own, make a decision, and act on it. That’s because many cultures expect decisions to be made at the top and then directed down to the subordinates.

Subordinates are expected to inform their superiors. Their superiors will take this information and weigh it, and then make a decision and convey that decision to the subordinate. So this can cause problems when Western and Eastern firms work together.

Westerners thinks that anyone is empowered to make a decision. They’ll have a conversation with an Eastern partner, and they’ll hear agreement to a particular recommendation or decision; it comes across that the decision has been made. But it hasn’t. All that’s happened is, the Eastern partner whom they are talking to has expressed agreement to the decision. They have expressed the idea that this would be an agreeable decision. But that doesn’t mean its within their power to make it happen. It’s up to the Western boss to communicate to the Eastern, boss at the same level, to make sure that decisions happen. This will not happen by itself.

Here is an example: We had a client who had engaged a firm in India. And they wanted to go visit this firm in India. Get to know them better, which is a great idea. The CEO hopped on a plane, but when he got to India, nobody was there to meet him. The President of the firm that he wanted to visit wasn’t even in the office! The entire trip had not been coordinated, it had not been communicated up the chain properly because the CEO who was coordinating this trip should have been talking to the CEO on the other side.

We have to make sure that the decisions are made at the right level and those decisions need to be communicated multiple times, back and forth. And you have to look for more than just agreement. You have to look for confirmation that the decision is being acted upon.