Lessons in Cultural Adaptability: Varying Attitudes in Eastern and Western Cultures on Project Decisions and Direction

There’s a recent article featured on HBR that examines how people’s attitudes in the workplace depend on their relationship toward authority, which is largely driven by the culture they grew up in. Take for example, the difference between Western and Eastern cultures.

In the West, we are asked to be more proactive and a strategic leader is seen as more valuable than a tactician. In Asia, employees expect to learn their tasks play-by-play from their bosses. When American managers are assigned to Asia, or Asian managers are asked to work with American employees, disagreements ensue.

I see this first hand in my experience working with Asian colleagues from the Philippines. Part of my job is to provide marketing guidance to our team in Asia in a consultative environment. The recurring question is: How do we transform our marketing in the digital world? During our weekly meetings, those in the Philippines ask for rules and guidelines that they can follow step-by-step.

They ask about which specific media channel they should invest in: should we put all our media budget on Facebook?

They come to us looking for what amounts to laws of the land, or hard-and-fast rules that are rigid but comforting to them as they are well-defined. Is Facebook the one channel that will give us the best results?

My American colleague and I hesitate to provide them with a singular way to achieve a certain goal, because we wanted to encourage autonomy and creativity. In this case, they are a variety of media channels that they can look into investing in, not just Facebook. So we tell them over and over again that it would serve them well to look at the data, understand consumer behavior, and research media channels that are both successful and innovative in the market to make the right decision on their investments.

Yet, at the end of these meetings, our Filipino counterparts feel they are not given enough guidance because they are not given specific answers nor been told to go a specific direction. Whereas us here in the States feel that by looking for “rules” and “step-by-step” lists, they may be thinking in a rather short-sighted way, reluctant to open themselves up to new ways of doing things (ie. data-based decision making and experimenting with other digital channels).

In these interactions, I’m learning that Eastern culture emphasizes the importance of doing well what one is told to do, while Western culture emphasizes generating new ideas and collaborating on solutions.

Now, I’m trying to balance the cultural expectation of providing specific directions while also introducing a cultural change to think more freely, independently and rely on hard evidence such as data. I’ll suggest a specific scenario to answer their questions, then walk them through the process of why it would work, while reminding them that it’s not the only answer to their challenges.

Understanding cultural contexts allows us to make changes to our actions and communication in order to relate better to our peers.

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