It’s hard to think of many topics I like more than intercultural dynamics. I took entire classes in college dedicated to constructing effective cross-cultural dialogues. Lucky for me, I spent the last week in meetings with employees from some of my company’s branches in Latin America. Over the course of our workshops and many shared meals we had the chance to talk about cultural differences between our homelands. If you know me at all, you know I am a sucker for those types of conversations. I get a real kick out of talking about different expectations, behaviors, and perceptions. I like figuring out what other people think is “normal” and comparing it to my own standard of “normal.” I like asking about others’ perceptions of my culture, and where they got those perceptions. So as you can imagine, I have been having a ball this week.
One of the topics we keep coming back to is how different our “work lives” are. We all technically work for the same company, but we are having very different experiences based on local culture and local firm leadership. Some of the differences are pretty superficial. For example, cell phone rules. Some countries’ firms buy their employees phones, some don’t. Pretty straightforward and not entirely insightful. Interesting for the sake of “Ah, I didn’t know that” discussion, but not really very thought-provoking.
The more interesting topics have to do with actual work habits and expectations. For example, status reports: to compile, or not to compile? In the U.S. most of my colleagues would reply with a wholehearted “Yes! We must have status reports!” But that sentiment doesn’t extend to every member firm. We have members on my team who never had to write a status report before they joined this specific team, and had no idea what to include or why it was important. Some of them are used to a work culture where leaving due dates as TBD is totally fine, meetings get more attendees if you sent out a last minute invite vs. planning ahead, and for some, it would even be considered presumptuous to send a report to someone higher up- it would be interpreted as stepping beyond one’s authority.
I am not saying these sorts of practices are black and white across countries. Naturally, individual preference can affect people’s opinions- I once had a manager who considered status reports a waste of time and he was 100% born and bred in the U.S. But generally speaking, you can’t just expect to switch countries and know how to behave yourself in the workplace. You can’t assume that you will know what to wear or who to talk to or what to do, even when the company you are working with has the same name as a company you have worked for elsewhere.
In the most immediate sense, what this mismatch of work cultures meant for me was that I got to present a session on the value of status reporting and how to produce effective updates (if you are interested in an encore presentation just let me know… available in both Spanish and English!). But it also meant that over the course of the week, we learned a lot about how some other cultures frame work, authority and responsibility. Status reports are just one example; we had similar “aha!” moments for topics like lunch breaks and team structures. For the sake of our project, we need to be able to find a standard that fits everyone’s needs and expectations. We need to respect everyone’s individual customs – but still get everything done. And, well, we need those darn status reports.