Do You Have Global Brains?

February 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

About ten years ago, when introducing this question to a group of managers in a leadership development program, I was asked what that actually meant.  Someone wondered aloud if it was a reference to the famous dinner scene with Ray Liotta’s character and the cannibalistic serial killer played by Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal. Ultimately it’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves. But be wary of being too dismissive. I know a field service engineer who five years ago, spent all of his time maintaining wind turbines in rural United States. Not much use for the nuances of other cultures then.  Now, he’s a manager of field service crews not only in the U.S.,  but due to acquisitions by his company, he climbs the 200+ foot ladders with crews he supervises (well) in central and eastern Europe.

Just recently, GE’s Growth Value Competencies have been refreshed and brought forward into the global arena.  In this company, if you want to succeed as a global project manager, or even as a vibration analysis engineer in Kansas, you need to have global brains.  Here’s just a few examples of what that means at GE and how the company intends to evaluate it’s people:

  • Recognizes the importance of current global events, customs and practices related to one’s team.
  • Incorporates knowledge of world events into current work situations.
  • Adapts oneself to, and appreciates other cultures and customs.
  • Applies knowledge of current world events, and cultures to assigning roles and responsibilities.

OK, that’s fine, but how do you do those things?

In my development work with managers, I’ve found two great resources that helps my clients increase their global effectiveness capability. One is a terrific book:  Managing Across Cultures (Solomon & Schell, 2009).

The other is web-based GlobeSmart . An interactive website sold on an enterprise wide basis, so individual use is limited.  It’s data base of over 60 countries helps you understand the expectations, values and behaviors of other countries (not just facts and statistics) based on 6 dimensions of culture. These dimensions correlate highly to the work of other researchers (Geert Hofstede) , as well as the Managing Across Culture book.  What’s cool about GlobeSmart is that you can assess yourself on the 6 dimensions to get a read on your own biases, and then compare that to the dimensions of a country you’re interested in – and see where you line up, and where you need to pay attention in order to appreciate and work with others who are not like you.   GlobeSmart advises you on how to handle, per culture,  specific business challenges such as persuading others, motivating employees, resolving conflict, negotiating, making decisions, and if you want, will present you with short cases to test your learnings and assumptions.

Example: You are meeting a prospective client for the first time over lunch in a restaurant. Do you bring handouts with you and begin discussing business as soon as introductions are over? Or do you spend a leisurely amount of time (possibly the duration of the entire meal) finding out about the other person’s background and interests and waiting to talk business till another time?

Answer:  Generally speaking, in Mexico you wait.  In Germany, be prepared to talk business.

Caution: A little information can be a dangerous thing.  Whatever your reference is, be careful about jumping into stereotypes.  What the research tells you should not be a source of cultural absolutes.  What you’ll learn by going to these resources should not be applied to every person in every situation in a particular country.  There is variability within cultures (just think about the U.S. where a New England Yankee moves to Southern California). In all cultures, people are different according to background, education, ethnicity, age, gender, etc.  So, while it’s helpful to make some generalizations (Germans are generally direct in their communication), be careful about stereotyping with a fixed view (Americans are violent).

Below is a snapshot of a GlobeSmart country home page.

Here’s a summary of Key Cultural Dimensions that correlates across global brains literature:

1. Group vs. Individual Focus: In group cultures there is more attention to the needs of the group with recognition and decision making focused there  (ex: Japan, Malaysia).  Individualistic societies encourage people to express their uniqueness (Who’s the MVP after the big “team” game?). Laws here are focused on protecting individual rights (ex: Australia, N. America).  Take-Away: Think about whether you want to recognize an individual in public.  Think about whether you’ll put forth your own ideas – or will you try to touch base with everyone in your group first to make sure all views are reflected in your proposal

2. Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism: This is about how we view authority and power, how much deference we give to people in authority and whether or not individuals have a right to express themselves, make decisions on their own, and take initiative.  In hierarchical societies, social and organizational structures are stratified.  People in authority are treated with formality (ex: Germany, UAE, India).  Egalitarian cultures have few stated barriers to opportunity.  Authority is earned and can be challenged, the feel is more casual, and the belief is that all should be treated with the same amount of respect (ex: Israel, U.S., N. Europe).  Challenge Question:  February, 2011, where would you put Egypt? Take-Away: Consider this situation: You are on a sales call and when you walk into the room, your client, her boss and others are there.  Will you talk to whomever you like or need information from, or will you defer to status and rank and direct questions only to your client?

3. Transactional vs Interpersonal Relationships: Here it is about how important it is (or not) to develop personal relationships before conducting business and whether trust is assumed or earned at the onset. Interpersonal societies (ex: Mexico, China, Saudi Arabia) conduct business after rapport is developed. Who you are, and who you know is important.  This takes time and effort and as a result, relationships (and networks) mean a lot in these cultures and they are often passed down through generations. On the other end of the spectrum, are the Transactional cultures where people don’t need to know others well before they do business and associations develop quickly, but may not last for more than a short time (ex: N. Europe, N. America).  Focus in these societies is on achievement/what you can do.  This dimension is a challenge for U.S. companies as they hire overseas. Companies governed by U.S. Fair Employment Practices Law cannot not ask candidates about their (non job related) hobbies or their families.  In Mexico (if you are hiring there), you can expect people to be insulted if you don’t ask them about these interests! Take-Away: If you are doing business with a visitor from an Interpersonal culture, be prepared to spend time with them outside of the work hours.  It’s likely that they will expect you to bring them home to meet your family and/or friends.

4. Non-Direct vs. Direct Communication Style: There are some cultures that place great attention to what, when and how something is said.  Context, background info, tone and non-verbals count for a lot and carry meaning.  In these Non-Direct countries (ex: China, India, UAE, other Middle East countries) there is great importance placed on harmony and saving face, so publicly debating someone on their idea is not so acceptable. On the other side (ex: Germany, Denmark, Israel, the U.S. – but less so) are countries where getting to the point, making strong eye contact and saying exactly what you mean is seen as a virtue.  Openly confronting difficulties and providing constructive feedback are skills that are valued and taught from an early age. Take-Away: Consider this situation: Imagine you have a direct report and have heard complaints about this person’s work.  Do you talk to the person immediately and not worry about where and when the conversation happens? Or are you more likely to go for a drink or lunch with the person preferring a non-threatening, relaxed setting to feel out how things are going in general?

5. High (short term)  vs. Low (long term) Time Orientiation: There are some places where the belief is that time is fixed, can be spent, lost or squandered.  These High – or short term – Time oriented cultures value immediate results, efficiency, schedules, and short-term benefits. Time is of most importance, meetings start and end on time. Punctuality is a virtue (ex: Switzerland, Germany, Israel, U.S.).  If you go to the Low Time end of the continuum (ex: UAE, Spain, Brazil, Africa), you experience how much relationships matter over efficiency. Plans change frequently, and arriving late to a meeting doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on you.  In fact, scheduling time is often viewed as a limiting activity.  In Mexico, when your child is invited to a party you are told that it will start at 3 pm.  Unlike the invitations to my kids’ parties – there is no end time noted.  My Mexican friend laughs at our custom of labeling the end time. He asks: “Is that when the fun is expected to end?” Take-Away: Low Time Orientation people often appreciate being informed and reminded about due dates and milestones.

6. Tolerance for Risk vs. Risk Adverse: In Saudi Arabia, children are taught: “The chameleon does not leave one branch till it is sure of the next one.” Risk Adverse cultures (ex: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Chile, Czech Republic) minimize risk through information gathering and thorough processes for getting things done.  Speed is less valued than thoroughness.  In these cultures failure is viewed more negatively than cultures that are more tolerant of risk (ex: Australia, Canada, Israel). Here, taking risks is more acceptable and flexibility, quick results and speed are more valued.  Interestingly, the U.S. scores in the middle. China in the past was seen as more Risk Adverse, but it is transforming and moving to the other side due mostly to their fast economic growth. Sort of like the U.S. was back in the “Westward Ho!” days.  Take-Away: Consider this situation:  A manager from corporate is asking you to make a decision regarding your department’s ability to commit to a specific production goal by the end of the month. Do you tend to make an approximate guess at the number of units you believe your department will produce, figuring it’s better to shoot for a high goal, than to be too conservative. Or, do you ask for more information, require time to research many different factors, want some assurance of the qualifications of the individual or group asking the questions, need to consult other members of the group, etc.?


  1. Be aware of your own biases and how they play out for you in business and social interactions, even within your own culture.
  2. In a cross-cultural situation, be thoughtful about who you are interacting with and don’t make assumptions that they are the same as you.
  3. Do the research.  In advance.
  4. Be a compassionate detective: Ask others from different cultures how they want to be treated, how flexible they are on time, etc.

Good luck.  Get Better!


§ 2 Responses to Do You Have Global Brains?

  • Andrew Le Roux says:

    The 6 perspectives to consider cultural differences is very interesting and valuable, Allen. One question may be to what extent the younger generation in a country is preserving or rebelling against “norms”.

    • Hi Andrew!
      I think you are right on. For example, there are some generalizations made about China, but with the one child policy yielding a generation of “only children,” there is a movement away from group orientation to individualism; as well as higher tolerance towards risk because of the fast economic growth happening there. In addition, across the world, and especially what we’re seeing in the Middle East, the use of social media, popular among the “youngers,” is fueling changes in cultural norms. Speaking of China, 45% of internet users maintain a blog (15% micro blog). So things are changing.

      By the way, I’ve looked at Schuitema’s work on Care and Growth ( Love it. It links up with the engagement research published in the last couple of years. Thanks for the lead on that!

      Take care,

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