PART 1 Of 2
A few years ago, I found myself in a team meeting which involved people from China, India and the United States. We were discussing a change strategy, and – inevitably – emotions began to creep into the conversation. It was interesting: The US team members were clearly trying to drive the discussion to a conclusion, while the Indian team members argued their points increasingly vigorously and the Chinese team members became increasingly silent.
As the meeting wore on, I felt like I was participating in a real-life Tower of Babel: Everyone was talking, few were really listening, and almost everyone was focused on their own point of view and needs rather than that of the team. We’ve all been in meetings liket his, but it’s particularly pronounced in situations where team members have different countries of origin.
As more and more businesses ‘go global’ and the world gets smaller and smaller, it’s becoming more important for businesses – and individuals – to understand their cultural orientations and recognize potential cultural blind spots.
Over the years, I’ve found the Cultural Orientation Index (COI) from Training Management Corporation to be a helpful resource in these situations. The COI has several components, but I’d like to focus on one, Action.
The Action dimension focuses on how “individuals conceptualize actions and interactions with people and objects in their environment”, with two orientations, ‘Being’ and ‘Doing’.
People with a ‘being’ orientation focus on building relationships with others and value reflection in making decisions, while those with a ‘doing’ orientation focus on completing tasks, and they value achievement.
It will come as no surprise to discover that the US has a ‘doing’ orientation while China has a ‘being’ orientation. India, on the other hand, falls squarely in the middle with a hybrid ‘being/doing’ orientation. (It goes without saying, of course, that not everyone from a given country will conform to these orientations, but it does provide a useful starting point.)
If the meeting participants had been more aware of these orientations, the meeting might have proceeded more productively. Someone could have said to the US team members: “We recognize you’re focused on concluding this meeting and walking away with firm decisions, but some of us need to contemplate our findings so far. Can we take a break and resume our discussions in 30 minutes? That will give us time to think through our concerns.” Or, knowing they would likely need time for reflection, the team members from China could have pre-scheduled a mid-meeting break.
The blind spot? No one at the table appeared to have considered these different styles prior to the meeting. Instead, the cultural gaps manifested themselves during the meeting as silence, acquiescence, excessive arguing, frustration, and, ultimately, a lack of resolution.