Multinationals and multiculturalism

I work in India for a US firm. My firm has offices all around the world, and thus, employees from a large number of cultures. The firm is over a century old, with several of the offices also being decades old.

As is usually the case, distinct from these cultures, the firm also has several cultures, a dominant global culture and several region-specific ones. These cultures drive how we work on a day-to-day basis.

Why does this matter?

When we interview for a role, one of the key things we look for is a cultural fit. This is an amorphous term that can be equated to how much this person’s behaviour, outlook and motivations gel with the dominant culture of the firm.

A high match is treated as a good predictor of long term success, all other things being equal.

Taking an example, my firm prides client focus, teamwork and communication. We are consensus-driven. We’re slow to come to an agreement, but we’re like a wolf pack once we do. Me-first people don’t do well until they hit the upper tiers of management. So far, so good.

The one that’s a problem though is communication. For a consensus-driven firm, communication is key. In our firm, this means an excess of meetings and emails.

How it plays out, in reality, leaves much room for improvement.

Take the disparate cultures. Generalizing at the risk of stereotyping, I’ve found that for U.S. teams, it’s sine qua non to be assertive and vocal. Asia is more hierarchical, and junior members often stay in the background regardless of the quality of the input they might be able to supply to a conversation. The U.K lies somewhere in the middle.

I’m an introvert. I also come from a more hierarchical culture. Putting both together, my default behaviour is to stay in the background and let my work speak for itself. This isn’t a winning strategy. I know that thanks to years of feedback review meetings where I’ve been told to work on my communication. I see the same issue with so many of my colleagues.

This is a variation on a similar problem with gender-behaviour differences.

If we’re all treated by the measure of our dominant culture, we’re going to be overlooked, resentful and the team’s dynamics and decision making will be sub-optimal. We’re leaving money on the table. Quite a lot, actually, which makes it a worthwhile problem for firms to address.

The best way around it is to ensure people, especially managers, are more culture-sensitive. The firm does so with mandatory training and optional workshops that explain cultural norms, differences and best practices. Their effectiveness is moderate as best, as the results are not tracked at a granular enough level to either determine compliance or change.

Personally speaking, I’ve been happiest in teams where my manager or their manager sets the tone right at the start. In my first team, the global head ensured we moved our weekly meetings to VCs so everyone could see everyone else and be more sensitive to interruptions and body language. It helped a great deal. Each of us who grew in our roles took this understanding forward and modified it in a myriad of ways. We paired people across geographies on projects. We set up matrix reporting even at junior levels. We go round the table in meetings so that every person gets comfortable with voicing their inputs and opinions.

How can we make this sort of thing part of institutional culture and behaviour? The answer really comes from Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules.  We have to have systems in place that track, measure, inform and reward good behaviour. We have to amplify best practices and call out and cut off anti-patterns systematically.

There are a number of ways to do so. Some examples I can think of are

  • Track employee happiness periodically subjectively, as well as via attrition or mobility objectively
  • Track the effectiveness of teams and managers objectively via metrics and look for patterns where different cultural groups form different clusters
  • Use mobility and organizational changes as natural experiments to isolate the effectiveness of a group or a manager
  • Look for anomalies in the organization’s data on either extreme, and drill into their causes
  • Quantify the effects and use it as part of compensation to create a natural feedback loop

All of this requires robust HR systems. It also requires a mindset where performance is considered as much a team variable as it is an individual one.

Where I work, we’re getting there. We’re far from it, especially for reward and compensation, but I see signs of progress in the right direction, and it gives me heart.

How is it where you work?

Image courtesy of Alex Kotliarskyi

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