They say that “crossing the pond” cannot be that hard. After all, the same language is spoken, pop culture of either of the countries is known in the other, cultural values seem to be very similar. Others might say that the British and Americans are two nations separated by a common language. So which one is true?
Let’s take a closer look at British and American working culture.
Numerous times I’ve heard American colleagues complain about the working style of the British. And at least the same amount of times I’ve heard the British colleagues complain about the Americans. Not in a personal way. But just sharing their frustrations and challenges which seem to make their work less enjoyable or productive.
What kind of complaints were they?
Many British colleagues say that the Americans are “just a bit too much sometimes”, too enthusiastic and loud, they expect strong commitment to make a decision quickly, but then they tend to change their minds often and it just doesn’t seem efficient.
Many American colleagues when they start working with the British can say that the British can be very often unclear, or a bit uptight, and that it takes a longer time to be able to say that we like each other or have a good and trusting working relationship.
Are these accurate descriptions of all Americans and all Brits? Surely not. But statistically – it seems like there is some truth in these statements. Let’s put our cultural lens on and see where these impressions might be coming from, shall we?
Task-based versus relationship-based trust
On the Trusting scale, when you compare the two countries with, say, Saudi Arabia or China, both the US and UK would be much closer to the task-based trust building. However, as we know already, when thinking about cross-cultural challenges, we need to make it relative between the two countries. And in this case, US on average seems to be more task-based than the UK.
Task-based trust building means that if you do your work, if you commit and deliver, then I would trust you [to do your work well]. Trust in those cultures is usually quickly built and equally quickly dropped, depending on what business relationship is required in a given situation. When you go into a meeting, you can go straight into business topics and this would likely be appreciated. Remember that we’re talking about building business relationships, not all relationships – if it would be like this in all aspects of life, that could suggest that the Americans don’t have long-term friendships or true family bonds, and that certainly wouldn’t be true!
Relationship-based trust building means that a lot of the business and how it’s being done depends on whether people have good enough connections with each other. I know a guy who I trust and who recommends you, and therefore you can be trusted too. Building trust in those cultures takes more time, you need to get to know the person better, like them, go out with them, and possibly also meet their family or friends. If you perform to the expected level in all those social situations, we could consider working with you. One meeting is not enough to make business decisions. One-day visit is not sufficient to build a working relationship.
As said, UK is definitely not on the far-end of that spectrum, however there is some truth in the statements that making time for chit-chat in the UK is important. Taking the time to socialise after work, going out to a pub with your colleagues or attend office drinks is important. Focusing not only on executing tasks is important.
Who and how is making decisions?
US preference can be described as more top-down and egalitarian than the UK. It basically means that you can expect the Americans to ask everyone for their opinions (egalitarian approach), regardless of their role or position in the company – if they are a part of the project, their voice is valuable. But you can also expect a need to align to the supervisor’s/project manager’s decision quickly if it’s time to stop debating and agree on next steps – even if it’s not the option you were supporting in the first place (top-down approach).
In the UK, it could work slightly differently. It’s a bit more hierarchical, which means that if you come from an egalitarian culture, you might need to encourage people a bit more to speak up and express their opinions openly. When working with the Americans, the British might also perceive it as slightly disrespectful to ask the whole team for opinion, but then “doing their own thing anyway” because the American bosses decided something. You can see how the two approaches to decision-making might not work hand-in-hand and create conflicts, if not managed properly.
Why won’t you just say what you mean?
Although the British might seem direct to people coming from some other far more high-context cultures (like Brazil, India or China for example), they may actually be perceived as indirect by the Americans. It has somewhat become a running joke about the British who use many qualifiers (like, sort of, possibly, perhaps, maybe slightly too much etc.). And you can see this in daily communications for sure. It’s visible in the way people provide feedback and ask for favours. Have you seen those “translations” before? 🙂 They are supposed to be a joke, but the truth is that they are funny because they describe a piece of reality.
One might ask “Why won’t you just say what you mean?! Life would be so much easier that way”. Well, maybe… or maybe not. In some cultures saving someone from being put on the spot is more important; making sure the manager keeps their authority is more important; being blunt and direct can be perceived as rude and a personal attack rather than just challenging of the idea.
That is simply the world we live in. In order to be a good manager and team member, you need to be respectful to those differences. They exist not only between the countries, but also within the in-country regions. It’s all about getting into the mindset of noticing and addressing those differences in a way which helps you be more productive, but also without compromising your sense of self.
Tips for Americans to have a better working relationship with British colleagues:
- be very vigilant to indirect messages to make sure you don’t miss out on someone expressing their disagreement or an alternative approach
- try to resist the urge of making a non-consensual decisions, make sure you acknowledge and actually address the other points of view, to avoid the conflict and the other side feeling ignored or misunderstood
- be prepared for it to take a bit longer to build connection with your British colleagues – simply doing your tasks well may not be sufficient to build that trusting relationship
Tips for the British to have a better working relationship with American colleagues:
- make sure to try and avoid the qualifiers and say what you mean – this will help your American colleagues make sure they understand your input well
- speak up if you are in the room, regardless of your role – after all, you are in that room for a reason!
- be prepared to be asked for your opinion, but also for this opinion to not make it into the final decision which will be made – stay flexible as the decision which was made may not be final and may require further developments.