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At C3 Consulting we are very conscious of how we work with culture when we train managers, employees, teams and entire organizations to lead, communicate, and work together around the world.

You should be just as conscious in your company if you want to get the maximum benefit from your cross-cultural or global activities.

These are the 10 basic pillars of C3 Consulting’s approach to culture.

Read them and ask yourself: How do we actually handle culture and cultural differences in our company? And what consequences does it have for us?

1. Cultural differences exist and have an impact on our thought processes and actions

"Of course people act differently around the world. But when you get to know people, it’s really the same things that motivate us."

We often hear this type of thing said with the best of intentions: there’s no reason to pay attention to cultural differences, because at the end of the day we’re all just people. If we all focus on the job at hand, things will work out fine.

The problem is that cultural differences exist. And culture has significance for how we behave and how we interpret our colleagues’ behaviour and our managers’ behaviour.

Culture affects how we communicate, negotiate, and collaborate. How we hold meetings, make decisions, and form strategies. And how we recruit, lead, and retain employees.

If your organization insists on ignoring cultural differences, you will make it difficult to solve culture-related problems when they arise, and difficult to benefit from the opportunities that cultural differences also present.

2. All cultural understanding begins with self-understanding

"That’s just common sense!"

That’s the standard answer when we ask why a company does things in a certain way. Only a few people understand that what is "just common sense" for a Danish employee may seem odd or entirely incomprehensible for a global colleague.

What we call common sense is all the different ways we think and act, ways that seem so natural for us that we don’t even notice them.

At C3 we often experience that when Danish-based companies begin to operate on a global basis the Danish headquarters attempt to spread its existing strategies, values, and processes out to the global subsidiaries. It often goes wrong – because no one has taken the time to recognize that these strategies, values, and processes are actually based on a very Danish frame of reference.

So when you work across cultures, you should start by being conscious of your own cultural baggage and everything that you take for granted.

It’s only on this basis that you can see the most important differences between your culture and other cultures and learn to handle those differences constructively.

3. Culture is much more than national culture

When you’ve become conscious of your own cultural baggage you can begin to learn about the other cultures that play a role in your daily work.

Keep in mind that culture is much more than national culture.

In many countries there are important regional and local differences. There are also professional cultures and organizational cultures. There are cultures based on what type of family you grew up in, and which hobbies you have. And there are cultures based on age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political orientation, social class, etc.

As cultural sociologist Elisabeth Plum says, culture is basically communities that are created between people. And since most of us are part of many communities, we are also a part of many cultures.

Which of our "cultural identities" is significant in our working life can be different from situation to situation. So if you only focus on national cultural differences in your organization, you may disregard other and more important cultural differences that are in play.

4. National culture still plays a role in many people’s work life, even in a globalized world

Some people believe that national cultures are no longer relevant in our globalized world and that if we talk about national cultural differences it only leads to fruitless stereotypes.

Maybe we are afraid to express ourselves in the wrong way.

If we say that something is a typical Danish value, what about all the Danes who do not share that value? And should we be talking about "Danes" at all – or does that signal that people who live in Denmark are a totally homogenous group, which they certainly aren’t?

Maybe we are afraid that if we talk about national cultural differences we will create a negative spiral where everything is about "us" versus "them".

And that can be true. The difference between national cultures is a topic with a lot of pitfalls.

But we can’t be so fearful that we don’t dare describe national cultural differences when they are relevant. And even though culture is much more than national culture, we at C3 still experience that national culture is a relevant category for a lot of people who work globally.

We find, for example, that when international employees come to Denmark, it can be a big help for them to get input on all the invisible rules that apply in Danish workplaces, so they don’t need to figure everything out for themselves.

So be careful about exaggerating the significance of national cultural differences. But be just as careful about denying that they exist – because that will make it impossible for you to begin necessary and useful conversations about the national-cultural baggage each of us come equipped with, and the role that baggage plays in daily working culture.

5. Generalizations are unavoidable – and can be useful if they’re used in the right way

At C3 we regularly encounter the point of view that generalizations about cultural groups are more damaging than beneficial. Because they never apply to everyone in a group, and because reality is all too complex to fit into the boxes created by generalizations.

We agree that each individual human is unique with a unique personality and a unique mix of cultural influences. But we also believe that it is impossible to avoid generalizations, not just when we talk about culture, but when we talk about anything.

So let’s stop disagreeing about whether we can use generalizations and instead talk about which generalizations we should use and how we should use them.

We are often asked for lists of "do’s and don’ts" of doing business with various cultures. But we don’t find these types of generalizations very useful, because they only address the cultural surface and are not much help if you run into behaviour that doesn’t appear on the list.

It’s much more useful to dig deeper and focus on the cultural preferences, assumptions, and values that are common for a certain group. For example, equality is a widespread value among Danes. And many Chinese nationals prefer indirect communication to direct communication.

The more nuanced your knowledge about a cultural group, the better.

But if you work with business partners around the world and are too busy to get into depth with all the various cultures, a more general knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.  

Just be conscious that generalizations are generalizations and don’t precisely describe your global colleague or business contact. Use generalizations as an indication to navigate by, not as a list of facts.

6. Culture is dynamic – and cultural generalizations should be too

At C3 we see culture as dynamic.

We don’t believe that culture grows from a fixed and unchanging core – and this is true of both national culture and other cultural identifiers based on education, organization, gender, age, etc. For example, Chinese culture today is very different than Chinese culture just a few decades ago. And many Danes view being 60 years old very differently than the generation before them.

We believe instead that culture is created and changed by the people who identify themselves with that culture.

And we believe that even though we are all affected by culture, no culture dictates our actions. That’s why you can’t use cultural generalizations to predict other people’s actions.

Maybe you are on your first business trip to China and have in the back of your mind that many Chinese nationals prefer indirect communication. Now you meet your new Chinese colleagues and experience that one of them actually says things in a very direct way.

There can be many reasons for that. Maybe she attended university in the USA. Maybe she’s worked in a Danish company before. Or maybe it is just her personal style.

That doesn’t mean that you should drop your general knowledge that many Chinese prefer indirect communication. It just means that you can nuance your knowledge. And the more nuanced your knowledge is, the better you can adjust your working style and communication strategies so you can reach your goals when you work globally.

So remember: No matter which culture you work with, it’s important to adjust and nuance your cultural knowledge on an ongoing basis. That way you avoid having your generalizations turn into rigid stereotypes that will lock you into a specific understanding of a culture.

7. Different ways of doing things is not about the right way or the wrong way

When you work globally, you will certainly experience times when things do not go as planned. Your colleagues on the other side of the world don’t live up to the agreements you thought you had made with them. Or employees in your global subsidiaries react entirely differently than expected to a new initiative.

Your first thought might be: Why are they doing things in such a strange way? It doesn’t make sense!

This can end up in a vicious circle where you and your global colleagues become more and more irritated with each other.

If you want to break this vicious cycle, stop the next time you see your global colleagues do something unexpected and think, "Why don’t I stop thinking that something different = something strange? What if I approached it as something different = something interesting?"

And what if I let go of the idea that our way of doing things is the right way – and instead think that it’s not about right or wrong ways, but about different ways?

The next step is to look into why your global colleagues are acting as they are. Why does that make sense for them? What does the situation look like from their perspective? Which values are behind their way of acting? And can I maybe benefit from doing things differently than I usually do them? 

Then you can begin to explore the opportunities that can lie in cultural differences, which you can read more about below.

8. Cultural differences also present opportunities

Many people contact C3 because they’re experiencing problems in their global relations and that’s creating frustrations.

The problems often lie in culturally-determined misunderstandings. That’s why at our training we offer participants a lot of simple and effective tools to help them avoid this type of misunderstandings going forward.

In addition, we work a lot on helping participants improve their skills at changing perspectives. 

When you need to complete a task or make an important decision, try to make it a habit to think: It could be that I see it this way. But is that the final truth? Or is it just my perspective? Which perspective might my global colleagues have? And how can those new perspectives play a role in creating new and better solutions or maybe improving our productivity?

It can be demanding to teach your brain to look at different perspectives, so in our training we also show you how you can help your brain along. You can read more about that in our blog post here about the brain’s ground rules.

The goal is that you don’t just learn how to handle the challenges that cultural differences can create. You also learn to see the differences as a strength and bring them actively in play so you get the full benefit of your global activities.

9. Pay attention to both similarities and differences

Maybe you’ve heard the advice that the best way to handle cultural differences is to avoid focusing on them. Instead you should focus on similarities. On common values and goals. And on all the things that bind us together across our differences.

And that can be good advice – sometimes. It depends entirely on the situation and what you hope to achieve.

Are you in a newly-established, global project group that is about to begin working together across cultural differences and times zones? Then it can be a very good idea to focus on similarities in order to build trust and relationships.

Are you part of a well-established and well-functioning team that is exploring new opportunities or developing new products? Then it’s important that you take on the risk of bringing the team members’ differences into play, so you challenge each other’s habitual thinking and contribute with different perspectives.

10. Cultural knowledge and cultural tools are not enough

When you work across cultures, it’s important that you have both cultural knowledge (about both your own and other cultures) and sharp cultural tools (that can help you convert your knowledge to specific actions).

But knowledge and tools are not enough if you really want to make a change when you work cross-culturally. You’ll also need:

Curiosity and openness – so you will approach cultural differences with open arms, a warm heart, and an exploratory and learning mentality.

Flexibility and mental agility – so you can change between different perspectives, adjust your own behaviour, and handle the quick changes and complexity that are part of the global working environment.

Personal courage – so you dare to leave your comfort zone and try doing things entirely differently than how you’ve always done them before.

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