Cross cultural cooperation – rules or relationships

I ran a fascinating workshop on global virtual team leadership in Turkey this week with participants from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Kenya, Turkey and Egypt.

One of the topics we discussed was cross cultural cooperation, using our culture abacus tool. (You can see see our YouTube video on this tool here).

One of the dimensions we discussed was different cultural preferences for getting things done either through rules and systems or through relationships and networks.

Quite often when I am working with European or US organizations, the majority of people have a preference for rules and processes. I spend time getting them to understand that much of the world has a preference for relationships, and that these need to be taken into account too in creating cross cultural cooperation.

This week, I was seriously outnumbered by cultures that were very relationship oriented, and I was under pressure to explain the Anglo- Saxon preoccupation with rules. Sometimes I struggled.

Why do we prefer to give away power to process rather than build relationships? Is it really better business to have a contract than a friendship?

In an environment where the legal process can be unwieldy and slow, does it make sense to rely on rigid agreements?

But on the other hand when we work internationally, we do need more formalization of the way we work together and business agreements need clarity and some structure if things go wrong.

Good business needs both, but it seems to me we should start with the relationships and then, where necessary, formalize the arrangements.

Often the first contact I get from a company is a non-disclosure agreement or contract and in every clause and page it screams ‘we don’t trust you’.  I am asked to agree to penalties if I disclose confidential agreements (why would I do that), and our rights and responsibilities are defined in advance. We agree in detail what will happen when each of us fail to deliver what we promised.

Usually we don’t have a relationship or mutual business yet  – but already I am jumping over hurdles and experiencing distrust.

I come from a culture where this is the norm – I am used to it. But what does it feel like to an individual from a more relationship oriented culture? Am I offended. Do I choose to walk away, or do I just establish a cool and formal relationship from the start?

Personally, I don’t want to work with people I don’t trust. I would prefer to build a relationship, find out about each other, and see if there is a mutual interest in working together before we move to contracts and agreements. If trust breaks down, what use is a contract anyway. Cross cultural cooperation depends on trust more than processs.

Maybe I have been converted by my colleagues this week.

What do you think?

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