Casual dress code on Fridays, shaking hands with everyone in the morning, monthly breakfast skipping meetings, etc.
We may have witnessed all these habits in some organizations.
They contribute to the unique culture of each firm and grow a sense of belonging.
Yet, they vary tremendously from one culture to the other, even from one firm to the other. And we need to know these codes quickly, especially when we are in a leadership position with teams in different locations or from various cultures.
Why is it so important to know these codes?
Well… Break these codes once and you soon learn how much people value them.
For some, if you break them: they break you…
Let me give you an example
I train leaders on emotional intelligence, using artworks to help them identify what they truly value. One of these artworks was the Venus of Milo. This antique statue of Aphrodite, dated 150 BC, is one of the masterpieces exhibited in the Louvre museum. Millions of people take selfie with this symbol of beauty every day.
The statue represents a goddess half dressed.
I used this in Malaysia in a government-linked company where several leaders had an initial reaction of shock and disgust. What was seen as ‘beautiful’ somewhere was perceived as ‘obscene’ in another place. Both verbal and non-verbal languages were very strongly rejecting this statue.
I explained the cultural background and intention, thus all went well.
Yet, I fully understood I need to filter some training material if I wanted to keep working with them. Breaking codes again, I’d no longer have any contract with them.
Do we need to comply with our organization’s social codes?
Unless it strongly goes against your personal ethics, I urge you to adopt the organization’s social codes. Our involvement claims our social acceptance, demonstrates our eagerness to play a role in this group and fosters people’s inclination to trust us.
Demonstrating that we belong
As soon as we make the effort to comply with the same norms as a specific group, we hint people that we are eager to join them, and they tend to welcome us in a more spontaneous way.
Soon we notice that we have
- access to the privileged information privy among people who trust each other
- larger reach towards a wider network
- increased bounding and less criticism
Promoting our adaptability
Showing that we can fit in different environment with ease demonstrate a great ability to build and gain trust. Thus, we also grow our network of supporters and this helps our career tremendously, promoting ourselves beyond our technical competencies.
Do we also need to comply with our teams’ cultural social codes?
Bending to salute our Japanese colleagues, eating with our hands with our Indian colleagues, praying before starting work as some of our Malaysian colleagues, kissing when leaving our French colleagues may seem truly awkward when we lead a team from different cultures.
Do we need to act as others from other cultures?
There are so many variations and some are even conflicting…
French colleagues will typically greet each other by shaking hands or exchanging a social kiss when they arrive at the office or leave.
Japanese colleagues will typically greet each other by bending to each other.
Bend to greet a French lady and she will wonder what happened today or why you are crossed with her since you had neither kissed her nor shaken her hands.
Kiss a Japanese colleague and he won’t talk to you for years, ashamed to have been seen in a public space demonstrating a private gesture that could be interpreted as an intimate relationship.
Hence, we may not necessarily act as others do, yet we need to respect their way.
Groups respect social norms.
Belonging to a group requests that we respect these social norms.
How to respect these social codes?
- Start by observing.
Notice how people behave and understand that people value these practices even if they do not make sense in your own world.
- Question your own codes.
Some people kiss everyone to greet each other while others never touch.
Some share all about their children’s lives while others never talk about them.
Each behaviour has its own benefits.
What could these different ways bring to people?
- Evaluate the context.
If you are the guest of honor at a lunch among your Indian colleagues, you better use your right hand to eat to show that you belong to their group.
Which requires practice beforehand, if need be.
If you are requested to take a break at Friday noon, you do not have to go praying with your Muslim colleagues, as you do not seek to belong to this religious group, unless you already are Muslim yourself and you then will need to join them. In both cases, you need to avoid scheduling a meeting at that time.
What do we risk not complying with these social codes?
- Losing a dream opportunity to enrich ourselves and grow
There is so much to learn beyond the social codes, as they give direct access to the people’s values, mindset and culture.
Table manners provide hints on relationship between women and men, between ages, between hierarchical levels, between priorities.
If we have always shared meal with men and women at the same table, we never questioned this way. Yet, when we noticed that only guests are allowed to eat with men and women stand to serve, all of a sudden, it raises some questions about the respective roles.
We may then discover that equal treatment is one of our values that we always took for granted yet may need some enforcement if we want to see it happening among our colleagues in some places where culture provides different treatment to different genders.
- We foster disobedience
Why would our staff follow our requests when we do not comply with what they consider the highest norms?
If we schedule meetings on Friday during Muslim prayer time that is sacred for some of our staff, how can we expect them not to send us emails to handle on Sundays…
- We scatter mistrust, doubt, suspicion
People will only share the minimum and will not warn us about any danger.
When we just do minimal effort to fit with people’s culture, they also do minimal effort to share and sometimes may even enjoy seeking revenge from a previous event they considered as a mistake.
Yet, many social codes are intricate with local norms that drastically vary from usual standards and only people privy to these would know.
If we are invited to the wedding banquet of a Chinese colleague in a rural area, coming there in very smart outfits or traditional Chinese ‘hanfu’, we may feel more than awkward among all Chinese guest wearing sportswear. Only trusted advisor would tell, provided they are willing to share, hence we deserved their trust and demonstrated eagerness to respect and value their codes.
We slow our career progression significantly
The ability to lead efficiently across cultures becomes a must for higher positions in global firms. The higher we climb the hierarchical scale, the more chances we are to embrace a role involving leading people from several locations and different cultures.
The flexibility to adapt and lead multicultural teams is easy to observe and report. That becomes an increasing key factor when deciding on who to promote to global roles.
Sooner or later, we will fall in a trap…
Without support nor warning from people trusting us, it becomes super easy to make us look tremendously ridiculous, inadequate and incompetent in public.
Then our bosses would no longer support and simply show the door.
In social interactions, you just need a couple of people hurt by your behaviours to place you in a very awkward situation.
Be wary not to lose ourselves
Respecting social codes does not always rhythm with fully complying.
Our personal ethics is at stake.
Though addressing women with contempt may be socially acceptable in some places in the world, we will still address them with respect according to our own integrity.
Just like health that we take for granted until we lose it, many values of our cultures are not obvious for us and we take them for granted in our daily interactions with people from the same culture. Yet, when we interact with people from other cultures, we then realize how much we value certain principles and codes that define our own ethics.
Hence, we begin our eternal quest to define who we are so we can define who we want to become.
Only when we meet different cultures do we refine our own.
Enjoy this fascinating quest!
Eager to grow your ability to lead across cultures, let’s schedule a short call to discuss further if we would be an excellent fit working together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marianne Dupuis, executive & leadership coach is an international success catalyst. She has guided more than 600 people towards lasting success in leading across cultures. This success comes from her ability to connect with leaders all over the world, to joyfully embrace cultural diversity and systematically leverage on human potential. Pragmatic and direct, simple and flexible, committed and caring are all ways people describe her. Yet, do not only trust them, just meet Marianne and test how her programs make a lasting difference for you too. Your 1st step: Get her FREE Guide to master ‘Giving Effective Feedback across cultures’.