The Seven Biggest Mistakes of Intercultural Management

Globalization is marching forward – no matter what presidents and populists say or want. This means that more and more managers are supervising intercultural teams. The following seven mistakes are frequently made in intercultural management.

Intercultural society places unique demands on leadership. Even if you only work in the Netherlands, you’re still bound to come across all kinds of cultures in the workplace. From the Ukrainian software programmer to the Chilean sales representative: before you know it, you’ve got a team that’s made up of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Knowing how to deal with this type of situation is increasingly becoming one of the basic requirements for leaders.

How you motivate people and gain their trust, differs from culture to culture. In any case, the following mistakes should be avoided in intercultural management:

1. Cultural pigeonholing

“The most common mistake that I’ve seen is that people make assumptions about another person’s culture,” says Grethe van Geffen, cultural diversity expert and author of several books, including Beyond Differences (Dutch). Van Geffen says: “We think that someone is the way that they are just because they are Moroccan, Surinamese or some other nationality. Even if there is a certain truth about stereotypes, we fail to take individual differences into account.” And that, according to Van Geffen, can cause a lot of irritation: “I always say to people: ‘Ask questions first. Don’t act on your preconceptions.’”

2. One-dimensional communication 

Their own directness sometimes prevents the Dutch from adequately assessing the verbal communication of other cultures. In many cultures, people aren’t so quick to discuss how they really feel, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not communicating. “We don’t acknowledge the information they’ve given us,” says culture expert Sander Schroevers, who is currently researching intercultural management for the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and also wrote a book: Intercultural Communication (Dutch).

“In many cultures, you have to listen between the lines in order to glean all the information. That type of culture already begins over the border in Belgium. We’ve never learned how to communicate in that way, so what is actually said often eludes us.” According to Schroevers, managers therefore need to pay extra attention when it comes to intercultural teams.

Nevertheless, Grethe van Geffen believes that directness also has its benefits: “It’s something that people from other cultures have to get used to, but in their experience, the Dutch are nothing if not dependable.” When a Dutchman says ‘yes’, he really means ‘yes’ and that can work in everyone’s favor. Van Geffen goes on to explain that the one thing that may inadvertently cause a problem when it comes to Dutch communication is the lack of discretion: “Dutch people have an opinion about everything and they’re not afraid to express it. This may be experienced as unpleasant or even insulting.”

3. Inability to see cultural nuances

A common mistake in intercultural management is that the major differences are almost always taken into account, e.g. the outgoing American versus the enigmatic Asian. Research has shown that most conflict situations stem from moderate cultural diversity rather than lesser or greater cultural diversity.

With the bigger differences, we see many aspects that are foreign to us, and we naturally take these in our stride and even take these into consideration. But if the other culture closely resembles your own, then there is a lot of familiarity. You’re more likely to act ‘normally’, i.e. act in accordance with what your culture codes deem to be normal behavior. But even then, you’re likely to completely miss the point.

4. Too much independence

Dutch discussions about self-organization and servant leadership are virtually unparalleled outside the Netherlands. According to Sander Schroevers, the Dutch way of doing things is embedded in the project-based approach: “Here in the Netherlands, we’re taught how to deal with independence at a very young age. At work, we tell our people: ‘Here’s the deadline, these are the criteria, good luck.’” 

But in many parts of the world, employees are used to micromanagement. They expect their managers to clearly define what they should be doing. And then they do just that. Schroevers says: “If you're not clear about this, then these employees are anything but happy when you give them your trust and grant them autonomy. They just think that you’re a really bad manager.”

5. Too much equality

Even when there’s a higher level of equality in the team, managers can still get it wrong. Schroevers says: “Here in the Netherlands, we have an egalitarian culture. But that’s not appreciated everywhere. In some cultures, you’re seen as being weak if you don’t take the lead.” According to Schroevers, the crux of the matter lies in how you can elicit empathy in your team: “Empathy is the key to mutual trust and whether people are willing to go all out for you.”

In many cultures people simply have more faith in decisive leaders, even if that means that these leaders don’t listen as carefully to their people as they should. Even being really well organized and having a wealth of knowledge isn’t always what matters. A manager who’s in contact with his employees and who takes the time at the beginning of each working day to ask how things are going, is often seen as more empathetic.

6. Piercing eye contact

In many cultures, people are more reserved than the Dutch, and anyone who doesn’t take this into account may step on a fair few number of toes. During a conversation, Dutch people look at their discussion partners and express their emotions both in word and gesture. Any discussion partner who avoids making eye contact is considered to be unreliable.

But even in the U.S. (a country that we consider to be culturally close to our own), making eye contact is not as self-evident. In the U.S., eye contact is only made during 30 percent of all sales talks. As a sign of respect in many Asian cultures, an employee will rarely even look directly at his manager. Expression of highly intense emotions is also considered to be a sign of extremely bad manners in Asia.

7. Fear of discrimination

One mistake that Grethe van Geffen often encounters, is that managers are too afraid of discrimination. For example, when putting a team together, managers invariably try to include everyone and unwittingly allow this to take precedence over the qualities that are best suited to the team itself. Van Geffen says: “In the world of retail you need to have customer-friendly staff. If you want everyone to shake the customer’s hand, it doesn’t make any sense to bring in someone who won’t shake hands due to religious constraints.”

She has seen that companies sometimes go too far in their determination to not discriminate. Van Geffen explains: “The demands made by the work itself are paramount. In an intercultural environment, there is more variation in behavior. There are also values that are less obvious. That’s why companies need to think about which organization they want to be, and which values are in keeping with this vision. And from there, they need to search for the right people.” Van Geffen maintains that this doesn’t mean that they’re discriminating: “It's all about personal qualities and not about the qualities of the group as a whole.”

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