Culture Resource Centre

Bending Over Backwards or Avoiding Cultural Differences Altogether

Bending over backwards

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People do not always recognise the impact of culture at work and might choose to bending over backwards or avoiding cultural differences altogether. Using examples from our training practice, we discuss behavioural strategies to assist people overcoming cultural barriers in business situations.

Situation 1.
An Australian manager told me that he was not looking forward to start ‘bending over backwards’ again to accommodate yet another Chinese, Indonesian or Indian delegation. Booking expensive hotels to pay respect to status, table settings for ‘extended’ delegations in the best Chinese, Indonesian or Indian restaurants and choosing appropriate gifts for all delegates. No clocks or watches for the Chinese: he had been told that clocks resemble death and funerals and are offensive in most Chinese cultures. He went on, “I think that by pandering to their cultural needs we are ignoring our own Australian culture and I think that’s wrong”.

Situation 2.
The new Japanese country manager of an established Japanese subsidiary based in Australia refused to spending time (and money) on learning about the cultural differences between the Australian and Japanese work cultures. He simply could not see the value for the Australian staff, the Japanese expatriates, nor the local customers. He explained to the Australian HR manager that it was not necessary to put intercultural competence training on the calendar, stating: “You know, the only difference between our two countries is that you eat with cutlery ands we use chopsticks…”.

Applying Adlers’ Behavioural Strategies to Cultural Situations

The cultural ‘accommodate’ strategy

The first situation seem to have elements of the Cultural Accommodation strategy: the ‘bending over backwards’ were the Australian manager attempts to imitate the practices of the ‘foreign’ – Chinese, Indonesian, Indian – culture. This way allowing the delegates to continue using their own cultural way of doing business rather than adopting to the Australian way. This however resulted in a manager who felt rather resentful towards the overseas delegates rather than being encouraged to building strong relationships.

The cultural ‘avoidance’ strategy

The second situation has elements of Cultural Avoidance strategy:  the Japanese CEO acts as if no cultural differences exist. This could possibly result in being unprepared when cultural challenges do arise. Interestingly, this last approach of avoiding seems to be more frequently used by collectivism cultures – being interdependent as members of larger wholes (Hofstede) – particularly when the unresolved issue is less important than the overall relationship.

According to Adler, in some Asian cultures people might prefer to ‘save face’, ‘protect face’, and ‘give face’ and thus avoid dealing with possibly challenging situations. Whereas the opposite individualism cultures – the extent to which people feel independent – people seem more comfortable with direct and explicit communication, and openly confront potential conflicting situations.

Collectivism – being interdependent as members of larger wholes. Collectivism does not mean closeness. It means that one “knows one’s place” in life, which is determined socially.

Individualism – the extent to which people feel independent. Individualism does not mean egoism. It means that individual choices and decisions are expected.

Including the cultural  ‘dominant’, ‘compromise’ and ‘synergy’ strategies

Next to bending over backwards or avoiding the cultural differences we have access to other approaches. Depending on the level of cultural awareness and knowledge that managers might have about other cultures, there are actually three more strategies that can be looked at in culturally diverse situations.

The Dominant strategy

Applying the Cultural Dominance strategy refers to people who choose to continue to do things in the way of their home culture, whether they deal with locals or people from different countries. Think about an intercultural communication preference or management style which might actually be offensive to people from other cultures. This dominant strategy however can be a valuable approach when the safety of people or the quality of products is at stake. Or, when we deal with a fundamental ethical issue such as declining gifts from foreign delegates, as they may be perceived acts of bribery within your own culture.

The Compromise strategy

Applying the Cultural Compromise strategy refers to people who combine the cultural dominance and avoidance approaches. Both sides concede something to work more successfully together. For example when Australian staff within an Australian subsidiary of a Japanese company undertake cultural training: they learn about the specific practices and preferences from a Japanese cultural perspective to be prepared for possible cultural challenges and develop skills to deal with them.

The Synergy strategy

Finally, applying the Cultural Synergy strategy refers to people who develop new, innovative solutions to problems and challenges, that respect each of the underlying cultural practices and preferences but differ from what would be needed in a purely domestic situation. This involves developing the intercultural competence of both management and professionals so that they can align negotiated practices and preferences in such a way that they work for all culturally diverse people involved…

Beyond Awareness into Competence to Deal with Culturally Diverse Situations

We started with bending over backwards or avoiding cultural differences altogether. Managers are advised to find a balance between a range of different strategies: being dominant and risk offending, accommodate and bending over backwards, compromise and risk conceding important practices, or synergise and transcend from what different cultures have to offer.

Beyond cultural awareness

To be able to achieve this balance, managers need to move beyond a basic awareness of cultural differences: they need to be able to apply frameworks for thinking which provide deeper understanding of the impact of culture at work: different work practices, different management practices, different communication styles, etc.

Into intercultural competence development

Effective intercultural managers make use of all behavioural strategies: they have the intercultural competence to select and switch between the most appropriate strategy, depending on the situation and the cultures involved to reach the most successful business outcome. Avoiding dealing with cultural differences seems to only delay preventable actions when working across cultures.

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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