Virtual Teams

Cross Cultural Success – The Culture Abacus

Our cross-cultural training program  includes three key tools – the onion, the culture abacus and the five choices tool.

The abacus tool shows five major areas in which cultural differences have an impact on work behaviours. (Participants use the cultural abacus to diagnose where their own culture is relative to others.)

  1. How we organise time. In some cultures time is more linear, more strict, more structured. In others it is more flexible.  (I am from the UK and in my culture time is pretty linear, punctuality and deadlines are important.)
  2. Rules. Some cultures prefer to get things done through rules, processes and systems, whilst others would prefer to do exactly the same thing through their relationships and networks.  (My culture is fairly rule oriented.)
  3. Status. Where does status come from and how do we exercise it?  (In my culture status is a blend of what you do and who you are – achievement is important in modern organizations but background, education and connections can also have a big influence in some sectors.)
  4. Individual v. group. We need to understand what is the relative importance of the individual in the group. (The UK is very individualistic in the way we work and make decisions.)
  5. Communication. For example, how direct or indirect is our communication style?  (In this area, the UK is usually indirect: we like to go ‘around the houses’ a bit before we get to the point.)

We train participants in how to diagnose where their own and other cultures are on these scales and how to produce a cultural profile for their own cultures (as I do for mine in the video, above).

Now imagine I am working with another culture – lets say Brazil. I might find a different profile. Time may be more relaxed; relationships may be more important than rules; status may be a similar blend of achievement and background; the group may be a bit more important; and communication may be more direct.

By creating two profiles (one for the UK and one for Brazil) we can clearly see the cultural gaps and think about how to bridge these differences to work more effectively together.

All cultural differences are relative: we notice what is different from our own culture. In our training, we focus on two important questions: where is the other culture relative to me; and is the gap big enough that I need to do something about it?

We can then use the gap analysis to plan practical improvements in areas like better meetings, decision making and communication.

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