July 2, 2009 / 2:21 PM / 8 years ago

Managing cultures in a flat world

<p>The book "Managing Across Cultures" (McGraw-Hill, $34.95), is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/McGraw-Hill/Handout</p>

BOSTON (Reuters) - In boardrooms across the world, executives speak a common language, wear similar suits and peck at the same model of BlackBerry.

But under the surface lurk deep cultural differences that separate people from different countries and backgrounds.

People who work in virtual teams, dispersed in far-flung offices and relying on e-mail and telephone for communication, face an even greater challenge.

Bridging these divides is the subject of two new books: “Managing Across Cultures” (McGraw-Hill, $34.95), published in April, and “How to Manage in a Flat World” (FT Press, $24.99), a U.S. edition first published in Britain in 2007.

Catching cultural clues is harder than it appears and, once caught, difficult to overcome, both books say.

“The distinguishing characteristics of deeply held beliefs are often invisible,” warn Charlene Solomon and Michael Schell in “Managing Across Cultures.”

This is even true when a group of people are speaking the same language.

“Beware, where English is spoken well or is the mother tongue, much can still get ‘lost in translation,’ because the assumption is ‘we all understand one another,'” write Susan Bloch and Philip Whiteley in “How to Manage in a Flat World.”

Both books hit on the need to adjust to different styles of handling meetings. The amount of time -- and conversation -- that it takes to develop trust in another person before getting down to business can vary widely.

“It’s like some people before they go up to hit a golf ball need to go and practice their swing a little bit,” Schell said in an interview. If you tell them to go up to the tee and hit the ball without a practice swing, they won’t do it very well, he said.

<p>The book "How to Manage in a Flat World" (FT Press, $24.99), is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/FT Press/Handout</p>

WORLDLY WIZARDS

Executives can more easily accept cultural differences in colleagues and employees if they take the time to assess their own cultural biases, say Solomon and Schell.

They sketch out a system they call the “Culture Wizard” model, which evaluates people based on seven cultural preferences, ranging from how respectful they are of hierarchical structures to how important it is to them to hit deadlines and adhere to strict schedules.

After taking a 31-question quiz that rates readers on these seven values, the book walks through case studies showing cultural pitfalls companies face.

Among them are a look at Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s unsuccessful nine-year German venture, which it closed in 2006. The world’s largest retailer discovered that its homey American approach did not appeal to taciturn Teutonics. For instance, many young women entering the stores thought that Wal-Mart’s smiling “greeters” were flirting with them.

They also chronicle how cultural differences doomed the 1998 merger of Detroit automaker Chrysler with Germany’s Daimler-Benz. U.S. executives, who focused on constantly updating car designs to drive new sales, were at loggerheads with German officials, whose focus was making near-perfect cars for buyers who expected to drive them for a decade.

TAMING TEAMS

In “How to Manage in a Flat World,” Bloch and Whiteley focus on the challenge of managing teams of workers who are separated by time zones and culture.

Among their ten tips are the importance of building trust -- and the role played by seemingly casual conversation -- and being ready for culture differences, including people who are less reflexively respectful of authority.

“The pace of change in the flat world has killed off the centrally controlled corporate structure,” Bloch and Whiteley write. “It is cumbersome, clumsy and slows down decision-making.”

Instead, they argue that a smart manager gives his or her employees a clear definition of their responsibilities and authority and then steps back, which leads to their maxim: “The paradox in management is that people want to be free -- and led.”

Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Eddie Evans

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