Originally published in Harvard Business Review, April 2014
It was Friday afternoon in Paris and I had spent the morning teaching a group of Chinese CEOs how to work effectively with Europeans. I asked the class: “What steps should the team leader in this case study take to manage different attitudes towards confrontation on the team?”
Lilly Li, a bird-like woman with a pleasant smile, who had been running operations in Hungary for two years, raised her hand: “Trust has been a big challenge for us, as Hungarians do not take the same time to build personal relationships as we do in China.”
Now I was a little confused, because the question I’d asked was about confrontation, not trust. Had she misunderstood me? I pushed the earpiece closer to my ear to make sure I was hearing the translator correctly. Lilly Li continued to talk for several minutes about trust, hierarchy, and her experiences in Hungary. The Chinese participants listened carefully.
After several long minutes of interesting comments that had — from my perspective — absolutely zero to do with the question I’d asked, Lilly came to the point: “If the team leader had spent more time helping the team build relationships outside of the meeting, they would have been much more comfortable dealing with debate and direct confrontation.”
All afternoon long, the participants’ answers followed a similar pattern: After taking several minutes to discuss peripheral information, they would loop back to the point.
The behavior illustrates one of the key differences between the cultural norms of East Asia and the West. Of course each East Asian and each Western culture is different — often dramatically so. But this differentiation appears to be basic.
Psychologists Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda wrote about this cultural difference in a famous study. As an experiment they presented 20-second animated videos of underwater scenes to Japanese and American participants. Afterward, participants were asked what they had seen.
While the Americans mentioned larger, faster-moving, brightly-colored objects in the foreground (such as the big fish), the Japanese spoke more about what was going on in the background (for example, the small frog bottom left). The Japanese also talked twice as often as the Americans about the interdependencies between the objects up front and the objects in the background.
In a second study, Americans and Japanese were asked to “take a photo of a person.” The Americans (left) most frequently took a close-up, showing all facial features, while the Japanese (right) showed the person in his or her environment with the human figure quite small.
Notice the common pattern in both studies. The Americans focus on individual items separate from their environment, while the Asians give more attention to backgrounds and to the links between these backgrounds and the central figures.
These tendencies have been borne out in my own interviews with multi-cultural managers. While Northern Europeans and Anglo-Saxons generally follow the American thinking patterns, East Asians respond as the Japanese and Taiwanese did in Nisbett and Masuda’s research.
Perhaps it’s not surprising. A traditional tenet of Western philosophies and religions is that you can remove an item from its environment and analyze it separately. Cultural theorists call this specific thinking.
Chinese religions and philosophies, by contrast, have traditionally emphasized interdependencies and interconnectedness. The Ancient Chinese thought in a holistic way, believing that action always occurs in a field of forces. The terms yin and yang (literally “dark” and “light”), for example, describe how seemingly contrary forces are interdependent.
Here’s what one of my Chinese participants said after we’d discussed the fish and photo studies: “Chinese people think from macro to micro, whereas Western people think from micro to macro. For example, when writing an address, the Chinese write in sequence of province, city, district, block, gate number. Westerners do just the opposite. In the same way, Chinese put the surname first, whereas Westerners do it the other way around. And Chinese put the year before month and date.”
This affects the way business people view each other across the globe. As Bae Pak from the Korean motor company Kia told me: “When we work with Western colleagues, we are often taken aback by their tendency to make decisions without considering the impact on other business units, clients, and suppliers.”
A Polish manager, Jacek Malecki, with whom I worked as part of a different assignment, shared with me an experience that illustrates this: “When I took my first trip to meet with my Japanese staff I managed the objective-setting process like I always had. I called each person on the team into my office for a meeting, where I outlined his or her individual goals. Although I noticed they asked a lot of peripheral questions during the meetings no one actually explained to me that my approach was not ideal for them, so I went back to Poland with a false sense of comfort.”
Later Malecki saw that the team had spent a lot of time consulting with one another about what each person had been asked to do and how their individual objectives fit together to create a big picture: “The team was now making good progress but not in the way I had segmented the project.”
In a specific culture, people usually respond well to receiving very detailed and segmented information about what is expected of each of them. If you need to give instructions to a team member from this kind of culture, focus on what that person needs to accomplish and when. Conversely, if you need to motivate, manage, or persuade someone from a holistic culture, spend time explaining the big picture and how all the pieces slot together.
If you are leading a global team, this type of cognitive diversity can cause confusion, inefficiency, and general frustration. But we’ve known for a long time that the more diverse the team, the greater the potential for innovation. If you understand that one person sees a fish and another sees an aquarium, and you think carefully about the benefits of both the specific and holistic approach, you can learn to turn these cultural differences into your team’s greatest assets.