Understanding the Multicultural Office

Manager's Handbook, The Prague Post, July 2004

Having known Jana for a few years, she has always struck me as the level-headed and optimistic type. Which is why I was taken aback by her subdued reaction when during lunch I asked her my favorite question: “How is work?” “Well, it is OK,” she said, “but my boss doesn’t delegate.”

Surprised by her response, I asked, “What do you mean he doesn’t delegate?” She countered by asking, “Isn’t delegating a typically French style of management?”

Because I specialize in cross-cultural management techniques, I know that though some management styles are more prevalent in some countries than in others, no one approach is specific to any. So I asked Jana for a few more details.

From her summary, I understood that her boss’s inability to delegate was actually only one aspect of a more complex issue affecting their working relationship.

As a product manager, Jana leads a three-person team. Among other responsibilities, her department is charged with producing the marketing material for the products her company launches.

According to Jana, her boss was spending a lot of time reviewing the materials even after the standard approval process. The end result was that the final product was usually finalized two weeks after the original deadline.

She was also uneasy about her boss’s fondness for assigning tasks and holding meetings on the fly, in the hallway or by the water cooler. I couldn’t help but smile at her remark, as it is indeed classic French behavior. However, Jana’s boss likely felt that it was a friendly, timesaving way of communicating.

Unfortunately, Jana complained that her boss was also in the habit of giving direct assignments to her team without first informing her about it. When he did include her in the loop, she said that he consistently failed to go over the specific tasks and processes involved in a given project.

This last point was again typical of the French, who see the breaking down of specific tasks as an infringement on an employee’s ability to think for himself and make his own decisions. Czechs, on the other hand, often expect managers to provide a detailed outline of all goals and expectations.

In short, what Jana was facing on the job was a classic cross-cultural standoff. After listening to a summary of her problems, I wanted to find out what exactly she wanted to change.

Her answer: “I want my boss to acknowledge that the present system doesn’t work and needs to be changed to accommodate a Czech environment.”

As much as I understood and sympathized with the validity of her position, I knew it was unrealistic. What she was addressing was a deep feeling that many Czechs hold, but rarely ever express openly. The revolution in 1989 brought the hope of finally expressing their creativity and distinctive character without deferring to outside influences. Naturally, they expected that foreigners would adapt to Czech customs and practices when in the Czech Republic.

However, the influx of Western business practices also proved to be a powerful influence, as expatriate managers imported their own management styles without much regard for the needs and aspirations of the Czechs they worked with.

Nevertheless, understanding, flexibility and cooperation are necessary in any international working environment.

I suggested that Jana might meet her boss halfway by adjusting to his management style. Their working relationship would certainly improve if she could adapt her principles to the environment rather than simply expecting her boss to change.

I advised Jana to try to get into a non-judgmental frame of mind whenever she felt frustrated by her boss. A neutral mindset is key to reducing the negative emotions that sometimes occur at the workplace.

By making a conscious effort to adapt to her environment and avoiding the natural tendency of judging her boss according to her own values and beliefs, Jana can reduce her own frustration while promoting more open and receptive communication.

Karin is a business coach and a specialist in cross-cultural understanding, communication and team-building.