In cross-cultural encounters, the people of two nations are likely to find more similarities than differences between their cultures. But problems arise when they don’t anticipate the differences, and they don’t have the skills to bridge cultural gaps once they bump into them. Not surprisingly, this can have serious implications in the business world.
Achieving cultural competence and bridging the gaps require more than memorizing a list of facts about a specific country. It begins with developing an awareness of your own culture, values and biases. It means learning to expect differences and developing an appreciation for (or at least an acceptance of) them. And it means building deeper relationships across cultures that will withstand the challenges these differences bring.
These are a few of the teachings of Gunnila Masreliez-Steen, the president of Kontura Gruppen, a cross-cultural management firm based in Stockholm, Sweden. Here she shares some key differences between the cultures of the United States and her homeland.
Corporate Sweden flattened organizations 20 years ago, drastically collapsing the organizational hierarchy. Today Swedes are accustomed to working with a greater degree of autonomy than Americans. "‘Empowerment’ [in the States] means you’re talking about how to move power from the top to the bottom of an organization, in a hierarchical manner," Masreliez-Steen explains. "In Sweden, you would find people are talking about cooperation and sharing responsibilities."
This is consistent with Swedish collectivism. More than any other country in Europe, Sweden embraces the value of sharing responsibility for supporting all members of society. This value is apparent in the cooperative relationship between businesses and unions. "Swedes anchor every major idea or major decision both with the union and the personnel," Masreliez-Steen says.
Sweden’s flattened corporate structure is successful due, in part, to a free flow of information between unions, employees and managers. Managers share their visions for the future and corporate goals on a regular basis.
Masreliez-Steen points to perhaps the most striking difference in the business environment: "You can’t fire people in this country. If you’ve employed them, you have to live with them." The result is something that in the States would be considered insubordination: Employees who don’t agree with a manager may simply disobey him or her. This means that Swedish managers are more interested in consensus-building than their American counterparts. In order to pre-empt disagreements, establishing a rapport among team members is of great importance.
The Swedes practice this idea of consensus-building in politics, as well as business. The result? Sweden hasn’t been to war in 200 years. Masreliez-Steen says: "Our problem-solving model is very diplomatic and nonconfrontational." She explains that Americans might view the Swedish people as "afraid of conflict," but the Swedish perspective is that it’s better to find mutual ground on which to build solutions than to engage in conflicts.
This will be important to remember when you’re negotiating with your Swedish colleagues. The desire to avoid conflict and the importance of consensus-building among Swedish team members means that reaching a final agreement may be a little slower than if it were two American companies involved in the deal.
When it comes to casual conversation, Americans should restrain themselves from asking the usual series of personal questions: Where did you grow up? What school did you go to? What religion do you practice? Although Swedes may answer these questions, they won’t reciprocate with similar ones. An exchange of information like this doesn’t usually take place until Swedes know each other quite well.
One fact that should put both Americans and Swedes at ease is that most people of Sweden not only have strong English-speaking skills, but also really enjoy the opportunity to practice speaking the language. This applies to taxi drivers and sales clerks in addition to your business contacts.
Building strong relationships with your contacts in other countries is like taking out an insurance policy against cross-cultural mishaps. Always take the time and invest the energy to do it the right way.
Fortunately, your colleagues in Sweden will make relationship-building easy. Many have at least a basic level of exposure to other cultures through language-training and travel during school. This means they’ll be more comfortable with cultural differences than those with no prior experience.
Swedes also are familiar with U.S. management styles, having studied from American training materials. Masreliez-Steen explains that when it comes to conducting business, managers from both countries will proceed similarly.
The basis for a sound working relationship is to get off on the right foot. Begin with a handshake and a "Hello." Discuss nonpersonal current events or pastimes and then move into your business discussion. Be sure you’ve come well-prepared for the meeting.
One particularly Swedish trait that Americans should keep in mind is that at the final stages, if a Swede shakes hands on an agreement, he or she absolutely will stick to the bargain. "Honesty is one of the basic values in this country. If you’re dishonest, the punishment is enormous," Masreliez-Steen explains.
Instead of reading these points as a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, take a broader perspective. These ideas should help you form the right questions to ask as you interact with people of any culture.
Global Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp.19-20.