Whether at work or outside of it we meet people who do disagree a lot, challenge our way of thinking and force us to come up with more and more counterarguments. Why do they do that?
Meyer in her book mentions that to start considering where your culture is on the disagreeing scale, it’s useful to ask this question: “If someone in my culture disagrees strongly with my idea , does that suggest they are disapproving of me or just the idea?”. I’d like you to take a couple of moments to think of an answer to that question, relating to your home culture.
The Disagreeing scale of Meyer’s Culture Map again can be shown on a spectrum from Confrontational to Avoids Confrontation. On the confrontational side of the spectrum it’s encouraged to challenge ideas in a team, disagree with others as it’s perceived more as a way to effectively develop ideas and grow, disagreeing is not inappropriate and will not negatively impact relationship. In cultures which are more likely to avoid confrontation the disagreement is perceived as negative for the team or the company, it is inappropriate and will most likely cause damage to the team harmony and relationships within, will be taken more personally, ie. thinking that it’s the person and not idea that is being confronted.
Another thing to add here before we go into examples is that confrontation preference and emotional expressiveness is not the same thing. There are cultures where indeed people are emotionally expressive (eg. French, Spanish), if they get angry the whole world knows about it and at the same time are on the far end of the confrontational side of the scale. There also are cultures however which are generally emotionally expressive, but rather avoid confrontation, eg. Mexico, Pakistan. It also works other way around; there are countries where people are perceived as not very emotionally expressive, eg. Germany, Netherlands, but they usually are very confrontational.
Real life example
Let’s look at my example for a minute.
As you can see, according to Meyer’s research Poland is pretty much at the confrontational side of the spectrum, while Great Britain (and US too by the way) is somewhat in the middle, but what’s more important is how these two look in relation to each other – the gap is quite big between the two. During my self-assessment I have marked my preference really near where average Polish person would.
This discrepancy between the two made a difference to my adjustment to living in London and I think enhanced the culture shock I went through. There is quite a couple of dimensions where I really preferred the “Polish” way of doing things and I still have to work hard on consciously adjusting to certain behaviours widely present here in the UK.
I tend to be the person who has a lot of improvement ideas for various processes, especially when you change your job and join in a new environment this fresh look often is a trigger for multiple ideas for how the teams work. In addition, Polish culture is probably now somewhat in the middle when we talk about emotional expressiveness. And of course it is at the far end of the disagreeing scale being confrontational. All of the above in my case turned out to be quite a challenge when I first started working with British people. The fact of me constantly wanting to put forward newer better faster solutions seemed to be treated as confronting on a personal level (which it was not at all of course!), adding the lack of expressiveness to this – it might have been perceived as me being angry, firm or just too direct. It was neither my fault nor the British. It was just a classic example of a culture clash.
I made a mistake though which I’d encourage you to avoid. I dropped my natural tendency and initiative to fit in a bit more and don’t seem as confrontational (in a negative sense). This didn’t feel right though because eventually I started feeling compliant and so I started to then be angry at myself. I started confronting myself, thinking about why I’ve stopped putting ideas forward, why do I agree to everything, why can’t we do something better if we easily can. I didn’t address the problem that I noticed. And you should have! So…
Here’s a couple of tips…
…for confrontational cultures
If you’re coming from a culture where it’s more appropriate to disagree with others, even when they are in a more senior position, eg. Germany, France, Russia, Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, and you need to cooperate with people from more reserved cultures, then there is a couple of things that you can do to encourage your colleagues to speak up and challenge your opinions and ideas:
- firstly, don’t ever force them to speak up or go around the table asking for ideas – you won’t get what you need and it will probably result in people distancing themselves even more in the future
- encourage others to speak first, before you outline any of your opinions or presentations
- find a way to brainstorm anonymously (eg. writing ideas on post-it notes, sticking to the board and do a voting)
- give people notice to prepare their ideas before the meeting, rather than being put on the spot during the meeting where a supervisor is present
If you’re the one who wants to put a new better idea forward try to do it on a one-on-one meeting rather than challenging your colleague on a team meeting, try and lay out all the reasonable arguments (in a positive form) that might help others understand that you just want to challenge the idea and not the person
…for non-confrontational cultures
If you’re from a culture where it’s less acceptable to openly disagree and challenge other colleagues, eg. Japan, India, Mexico, Sweden, China, Saudi Arabia, and you are working with people from more confrontational cultures:
- firstly and most importantly, try not to take their confrontations personally – in most cases they will not be attacking you, but just the ideas, which might have a positive impact for further development of your product, processes etc.
- I’m pretty sure that even if you don’t often articulate your ideas out loud you do have some insights that your colleagues might benefit from. If you are asked for an opinion and you actually have one, use a positive language to describe it (so that it’s easier for you and well received by the others) and contribute to the team’s success
- if you struggle to speak up and put your ideas forward directly on a meeting, talk to your colleagues or supervisor about how you like to work, maybe you can agree that they will give you an agenda in advance so you can better prepare for the meeting and avoid being put on the spot
Remember, none of these approaches is better or worse! They are just different. When talking about global cooperation there is no such thing as a normal behaviour. Every person is different and although influenced by their upbringing can have their own working preferences. The easiest thing is to not make assumptions and set rules, agreements and boundaries from day one when you start working with new colleagues.
Let me know your thoughts on this! I’d love to hear your stories of any cultural clashes you’ve had deriving form different approaches to idea confrontation and how you’ve dealt with them.