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A View From INSEAD

The Changing Face of Cross-Cultural Management

Professor Erin Meyer

Programme Director of Leading Across Borders and Cultures.

September 2012

As The Business School for the World®, INSEAD places a great emphasis on cross-cultural management. One of our resident experts in this field is Professor Erin Meyer, who has developed a whole new take on how to lead across national borders and cultures. In the following interview, she shares some of her latest insights.

Managing across cultures has become increasingly important across the world. Much has been said about it, much has been written about it. What’s different about your take?

I can tell you, having worked on this topic over the last 17 years, the landscape has changed dramatically. So it's really a fascinating area to be working in. Until probably seven or eight years ago,  it was usually about just two cultures working together. Maybe you would have a French person who was wanting to better understand American management. Or maybe you would have an American who was wanting to understand the various management styles of different European countries. But today, suddenly, global teams are appearing all over the place. A huge percentage of managers in multinational companies are in situations where they have team members from many different countries, and they have to understand not “how do I manage one culture?” and “how do they perceive me?”, but “how do these various cultures on my team perceive one another?” and “how can I improve the collaboration between those cultures?”

So it’s about cultural relativity – is that the phrase you use?

That’s right. You can’t start thinking about global teamwork or multicultural interaction unless you think about relativity. Let me give you an example. I was working with a global team a few months ago: a group of British people, a group of French people and a group of Indian people. I was talking to the British at one point, and I asked them, “What's it like to work with the French?” I remember one of them said to me, “Well, Erin, you know the French: they’re very chaotic, they’re disorganised, they're often late. They're always changing the topic in the middle of the meeting, so it's very difficult to follow them.” A little bit later, I asked the Indians, “What's it like to work with the French?” One of them said to me, “Well, Erin, you know the French. You know, they're so rigid. They are so inadaptable. They're so focused on the structure and timeliness of things that, if you don't tell them weeks in advance exactly what's going to happen in the meeting and in what order, it makes them very nervous.” These two cultures have totally opposite impressions of the French. And that's cultural relativity. My goal is to present a framework that helps people decode the way that different cultures perceive one another. So it moves us from a cross-cultural space to a multicultural space.

But isn’t there a sense that with globalisation there's a homogenisation, a harmonisation, that individual cultures are becoming less important, not more important?

Well, it's a really interesting question. If you think about it, ten years ago, the people working across cultures were mostly either business travellers going to those countries or expatriates living in countries that were not their own. But today, who's working across cultures? Often, they are people who live in their own country. They get up in the morning, they go to their desk and then, by email, they negotiate with suppliers in other countries, they sell products to clients in other countries. They might never go to those countries or have any visual cues that help them understand the cultural context of their clients or suppliers. In other words, it becomes much more complex for them to even begin to understand the impact that culture is having on their communication, although, quite likely, the impact is rising every year.

You’re an American living in France. What are the big challenges for trying to communicate in that situation?

I was raised in the Midwest in the US, and then I spent most of my adult life living in different countries. I live in France currently. I'm married to a French person. Maybe I'll just give you one example that I often see with clients who are working back and forth between these two cultures that I know so well. In my own culture, in the American culture, there is a very strong emphasis on evaluating performance. And if you have criticism to provide, you should provide three positives before you give the negative. That’s very deeply anchored in American culture: it shows respect to start by appreciating someone’s performance before you criticise. In France, that's not the case. The school environment is set up so that there is a very strong emphasis on pushing children to strive for excellence and much less explicit positive feedback is given. In other words, it's not said out loud. In a business environment, also, a good deal of positive feedback is given implicitly. The idea that you would say explicitly three positive things before moving on to the criticism is a bit alien. So what happens when you have an American manager who's leading a team of French people and he wants to tell someone her performance is not acceptable? He starts by telling her three things very explicitly that he thinks she is doing well, and she's thinking, “Wow, I've never received so much positive feedback.” By the time he gets to what he meant to say, what she needs to do differently, she's not even listening any more. He may leave that meeting feeling that he very clearly communicated what she needs to do differently. And she may leave that same meeting feeling that she just received really positive notes about her performance. For an American manager in that type of situation, it's very important to develop the flexibility to provide performance reviews and evaluations in different ways. The more we can learn to be flexible, working in different ways with different populations, the more effective we’ll be internationally. 

Why do some cultures seem to dislike email?

A part of my framework focuses specifically on how trust is built in different cultures. It looks at what I call “relationship-oriented trust” versus “task trust”. In a culture like Britain, trust in a business environment is usually built because we work together, we see we do good work together, we like working together – and therefore we learn to trust one another. But in a culture, like the UAE, trust is developed much more through personal relationship-building, meaning that we spent time getting to know one another at a personal level, we spent time connecting together – and so we trust each other. If you relate that to communication mediums, the most task-oriented of all is email: it enables us to get our work done, but doesn’t offer much opportunity to connect. Next, maybe comes the telephone, then face-to-face formal meetings, then face-to-face informal interactions. Anybody working with a relationship-oriented population for the first time should choose a communication medium that’s as relationship-oriented as possible at the beginning. If you can’t go face-to-face, choose the telephone. And then later, you can move back to email.

You’ve mentioned your framework a couple of times. Tell us a little bit more about it.

Well, I have eight elements that I research and that I have found have the strongest impact on cross-cultural or multicultural business. Just to give you a couple of examples, for someone who’s working on a global team, I think one of the big issues is disagreement. In every culture, of course, if you're working on a team, sometimes you're going to feel disagreement. But the question is, what's the most appropriate way to express disagreement in different cultures? In some cultures, really just saying it straight out shows transparency and openness. In other cultures, if you say it straight out, you may have very strong negative fallout. So that's one of the elements. Another critical element is understanding communication patterns. Corresponding to the eight elements that I work with, I have eight scales  and, countries are positioned up and down them.  This means we can think relatively about how various cultures perceive one another, and think about tools and strategies to help bridge those different cultural patterns.

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