How cultural differences affect outsourcing – US & Eastern Europeans (I)
Cultural differences between Eastern and Western Europeans or other nations of the world can sometimes lead to collaboration flaws, mainly caused by miscommunication. In order to easily avoid these misunderstandings, we will review these differences and try to find some workarounds in order to close (or at least diminish) the cultural gap when it comes to Communication, Evaluation process, Leadership, Decision making, Trusting, Disagreeing, Scheduling and Persuading.
This is the continuation of a series covering the business relationship between Germany, US, UK, France and Japan and Eastern Europeans, mainly Romanians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians.
We’ll be approaching the US in the following.
In general, the dominant style of communication in US business culture is friendly and to the point, which basically means they are a low-context culture. “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe” mean…”Yes”, “No” and “Maybe”; there’s not a lot of reading between the lines going on, a thing which Eastern Europeans have in common. Generally, they also like to laugh and enjoy talking to people with a sense of humor, which is another point bringing Americans and Eastern Europeans together in a workplace environment.
An important note: in the US, periods of silence are usually disliked during negotiations; they may continue to speak simply to avoid silence, but don’t get fooled and call them business blabbermouths. Also, don’t be confused by the fact that even during the most critical of meetings, they tend to adopt sports terms in their business speech (“Touch base”, “Call the shots”, “Ballpark figures” and “Game plan” are just a few examples). Americans hold their sports very dearly and the sports language can almost be called a micro-language when it comes to conducting business and expressing competitiveness.
One finer aspect would be that, unlike other cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable to refuse food or drink. In most cases, you won’t be urged to eat, unlike in Eastern Europe, where you may find yourself accepting food or drink even after refusing it three times, which is considered the normal amount of times you should be asked about such an issue until your politeness is overcome and you’re finally deemed sincere.
Closing the gap:
Both sides should free to joke and speak as directly as business etiquette allows it; BUT, when it comes to more serious issues, whereas Americans are direct and to the point because time is of the essence and time is money, Eastern Europeans usually begin the meetings with small talk and leave the serious issues for the middle of the meeting. They will avoid expressing the issues directly, leaving the impression that they are hiding the truth when they are just trying to be polite. Until the business procedures synchronize for both parts (and hopefully the time zones, so to speak), the Americans should have patience and try to assure their Eastern European counterparts that, for good or for bad, they can and should speak their minds with less hesitation. The latter should only muster some courage.
People from all cultures believe in “constructive criticism”, yet what is viewed in one culture as constructive can be viewed as destructive in another. Usually, we call this feedback. Being constructive, it is viewed rather as negative feedback, thus a cultural scale is born, where the extremes are direct negative feedback and indirect negative feedback. Where do Americans generally fit? Right in the middle of the scale, which could sound reassuring, but there’s actually a catch: being in the middle of such a scale means that depending on the leader and business type, you will get mixed types of feedback.
Generally, American executives are direct and will not hesitate to disagree with you or criticize you, which leads to them being seen as abnormally blunt and frank, especially by Romanians, Latin Eastern Europeans. This bluntness comes from their waste no time policy and their frankness stems from their low-context way of communicating.
When it comes to Eastern Europeans, the non-verbal elements are important in evaluating feedback, hence, the lack of them can lead to missing out the point. They also take conflicts more personally. It is important to build a good personal relationship in order to have a successful business partnership. Ukrainians and Bulgarians are treating feedback in a similarly direct manner, they are comfortable with a more direct communication style. However, Romanians tend to be more subtle when giving feedback and will expect the same. Romanians will need to receive positive feedback more often in order to stay motivated. They will prefer to deliver the message more vaguely in order to save face (as in appearance and reputation).
Closing the gap:
Fear not, no hearts will get hurt if the”sandwich method” is used. This method is very useful when working with Eastern Europeans overall, especially Bulgarians, Ukrainians and Romanians; when giving feedback try to emphasize the positive aspects and express the negative ones as challenges that both parties can overcome if they are willing to do so. This will create a positive environment that will motivate everyone to give their best. Directly showing mistrust is recommended only when there are serious reasons to do so. Always provide arguments on the issues raised in your feedback. Avoid any criticism that may appear as personal, as this can lead to conflicts.
There is an egalitarian management approach when it comes to leadership and a hierarchical one, both of them being proven successful across various cultures. But what happens in terms of leadership when an egalitarian culture, such as that of the US, clashes with hierarchical ones such as those recurrently found in Eastern Europe.
Yes, Eastern Europeans are hierarchical. The general manager not only has a strategic role but also has the highest authority to decide about how the tasks are being executed. This has direct impact: Eastern Europeans expect the general manager (or the hierarchical superior) to know their assignments and instruct them on how to improve their work. This also means that there are higher expectations towards leaders to not only manage the business but also to be involved in other operational areas, including sales, account management and project management.
The US is once again found to be rather in the middle of the egalitarian/hierarchical scale, with a subtle tendency for the egalitarian side. The direct effects of this are being informal at the workplace, which makes sense given their low-context culture, something which is harder to digest at first for an Eastern European.
Closing the gap:
There is some common ground: in the Eastern European region, building trust and networking play an important part in establishing good business relationships. This could take more time but will contribute to a healthier long-term business relationship. Eastern Europeans seek the general manager’s approval, their culture being hierarchical. Make sure you maintain direct communication with the business leaders, not only with the project manager. It is best to confirm any important decision with the highest hierarchical leader involved in the process. It is also advisable to make sure that Eastern European highest hierarchical leader involved is updated on the project’s progress, at times even if it is not requested. Regardless, a good boss should, nowadays, show flexibility towards both management approaches.
The concept “time is money” is taken seriously in the US business culture. Business executives are used to making up their minds quickly and decisively and being a low-context culture, they value straightforward and to-the-point information. American executives are opportunistic and willing to take chances. In the States, money is a key priority and an issue that will be used to win most arguments. What is interesting is that even though Americans regard themselves as an egalitarian culture when it comes to decision making, they are rather hierarchical. This, as in Germany’s case, where they seem hierarchical but are rather egalitarian, is an exception to the global pattern. When reaching consensus, “United we stand, divided we fall” is an overly general business quote the Americans use.
Eastern Europeans are, as in leadership, clearly hierarchical; they have a so-called top-down approach. They also tend to be risk-averse, so they will take any required actions to reconfirm any important decision. This may lead to undesired delays when it comes to conducting business under US management. Eastern Europeans are usually more flexible when dealing with problems, and they tend to be more open to applying innovative, out of the box decisions, rather than rigid, known-to-work solutions.
Closing the gap:
Try to be pro-active. Also, try to communicate as clearly as possible your expectations about the decision process. Be mindful about the opinions of your peers, even if they are not always openly expressed. Don’t immediately interpret the delays as refuse or negative action, this often means that more time is required to build trust or to eliminate any risks. Several meetings (sometimes face-to-face meetings) may be required before taking an important decision. Be patient and make sure you contribute to building trust.
We’ll be approaching the issues of Trusting, Disagreeing, Scheduling and Persuading in business conducted between the US and Eastern Europe. Make sure to revisit our blog next week!