A client from Amsterdam used to watch me facilitate leadership programs for his company’s executives. At the end of each session I’d ask him how he thought it went. Mark would look very serious and say, “Robert, not everything is AWESOME.” He’d pronounce ‘awesome’ in a Dutch inflected fake New York accent, and we’d both crack up laughing.

Even though it was funny, Mark was sending me a message. In Mark’s culture, drawing attention to oneself and one’s work is discouraged. In fact, to express approval, Mark would often say to me, “it could have been worse.” Some praise!

Cross-cultural differences can create a lot of misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict. To examine this, sociologist Geert Hofstede extensively researched and identified how cultures differ. Of course, Hofstede acknowledged the obvious: within each culture every individual is unique. Yet he identified several dimensions where cultures significantly differ, including their orientations toward time, power, and even ambiguity.

A key cultural difference

The dimension I see play out most visibly in multi-cultural work settings is what Hofstede labeled ‘individualism’ vs. ‘collectivism.’ In more individualist cultures people are expected to first look after themselves and their immediate family.

In more collectivist cultures people are integrated from birth onward into strong, cohesive groups. They are expected to redirect self-oriented behavior toward the needs of the social unit, such as their extended family, tribe, or work team.

You probably wouldn’t be surprised which country scores as one of the highest on the individualist side – that’s right, the USA. You can compare country cultures by clicking here.

How individualism plays out in global business is fascinating. Americans are more likely to assert our own needs, to be self-reliant and to take initiative. Many of us grab the ball, run with it, and seek personal recognition. We aren’t even aware that we are doing this; it just feels natural.

Yet people from less individualistic countries often interpret this behavior as grandstanding, overly drawing attention to ourselves (as Mark’s feedback to me signified).

Conversely, Americans frequently get frustrated by people from different cultures when they are unwilling to challenge others in front of a group, or don’t express their individual needs.

Cultural differences get personal

I work with a pharmaceutical company operating on the West Coast but headquartered in Switzerland. The Swiss often shake their heads and mutter at what they consider the Americans’ bragging and self-promotion, while the Americans judge the Swiss as passive-aggressive or submissive. This difference often creates needless confusion and avoidable clashes.

The cultural difference around ‘individualism’ even plays out at the personal level. I recently coached a high-potential executive from Brazil who transferred to the United States. In Brazil, Victor’s career was carefully tracked and managed by his company. But in the States, he noticed that challenging assignments were going to others, and he started to feel stuck.

Victor wanted to take more responsibility for his career path. But he was reluctant to assert his own needs with his bosses, claiming it would be ‘unseemly’ to do so. I encouraged Victor to examine this judgment. After talking it through he realized his fear was that if he ‘raised his hand,’ people would think he was self-centered, which was the worst thing he could imagine. Unfortunately, this fear kept Victor from getting what he wanted.

Victor took small steps to test whether he would be perceived as overly egocentric if he asserted his wishes to his bosses. They had no idea he was dissatisfied. This led to conversations about his career path, and soon after, to a more challenging role.

When working cross-culturally, it is easy to see other cultures’ idiosyncrasies but difficult to see our own (after all, do fish know they are swimming in water?). Marion, an American colleague working in the Philippines, recently told me a story that illustrates the point.

Cultural differences lead to learning

Her office in Manila established a prize for their top salesperson. When the award was announced, all twenty salespeople were recognized, even the lowest producers. Incredulous, Marion asked why they were recognizing low performance. She was told, “It is the duty of the top performers to help those on the bottom.”

This was unfathomable to Marion, as it contradicted her more individualistic bias. Yet when she reflected on the wisdom of the custom, she realized it was a cultural difference that she was just not accustomed to. Upon her return to the States, she implemented several aspects of the practice.

We all have blindspots about how our cultures unconsciously program our behavior. To be successful in cross-cultural settings, it is more helpful to try to understand cultures different from our own rather than look down our noses at them. When we do, we can’t help but learn more about ourselves, and that really is AWESOME.