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5 Cultural Differences to Acknowledge When Facilitating

We are delighted to announce that we have been shortlisted for a ROCCO Business Award this year for International Trade by the Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce! The winner will be announced at the awards night on 20th November – finger’s crossed!

This had us thinking about all the different countries and cultures we have visited, and who has used our activities and resources over the years, from South Africa to Singapore, Malaysia to Mexico and everywhere in between!

We try to ensure our activities are cross-cultural, however, there will always be some cultural differences. As organisations become global, and our teams multicultural, as a facilitator, ensuring we are culturally competent and are sensitive to cultural differences is essential to being an effective and valued facilitator.

In international groups, when the majority of participants speak fluent English, dress according to the ‘uniform’ of their business, and share experiences on universal social media platforms, it is easy to assume that these differences are disappearing. However, important cultural differences remain that may have an impact on individual and team experiences. Facilitators should be very conscious of the implications of these differences.

So what do we mean by ‘culture’?

For the purpose of this article, I take a very simplistic view of this and define culture as a set of shared experiences, values, beliefs and expectations that are built up over time and inform the attitudes and behaviours of those who share that cultural heritage.  Some of these are visible and easy to distinguish, e.g. some aspects of body language, gesture, dress and adherence to specific customs or rituals. Others are less obvious but can be observed, such as different attitudes to physical proximity and personal space, approaches to authority and rules or the prioritization of different loyalties, for example to family or work colleagues. Finally, there are cultural differences that may be much less visible because they are inherent in different cultures and their core beliefs.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, in the research work that led to the development of Trompenaars Model of National Culture Differences, identified some key cultural dimensions that wise facilitators understand. As a facilitator, I find these a very valuable way of thinking about the groups I work with and the inherent differences they may be bringing to a facilitated session.

1. Universalism vs. Particularism
Are there universally accepted ideas, practices and rules that can be applied everywhere without modification, or do circumstances and relationships dictate how these practices should be applied? Cultures with high universalism see one reality and focus on formal rules. Cultures with high particularism see reality as more subjective and place a greater emphasis on relationships. For a facilitator, this is important to recognize. We may need to consider the time allowed for building relationships before ‘getting down to business’, the extent to which apparently agreed ‘rules’ are applied in every situation or only in some, and the extent to which we allow individuals to explore ‘multiple realities’ before we try to reach agreement about a way forward.

2. Individualism vs. Communitarianism
Individualism refers to people regarding themselves as individuals, while communitarianism refers to people regarding themselves as part of a group. This influences the extent to which individuals may be prepared to speak for themselves, or as representatives of a group opinion. My English teaching colleagues working in Japan learned rapidly that an open question addressed to a whole group was unlikely to be answered, as no individual wished to speak without consultation with a group. In contrast, small groups asked to discuss and report back achieved much faster and more positive responses. Meetings in China may well be characterised by the withdrawal of a negotiating team to discuss and agree their approach, rather than allowing an individual, however senior, to speak on behalf of the group without collective agreement.

3. Neutral vs. Emotional
A neutral culture is a culture in which emotions are held in check whereas an emotional culture is a culture in which emotions are expressed openly and naturally. The extent to which we encourage participants to share their feelings, as opposed to their thoughts, should be considered carefully in multi-cultural groups. It should also we noted that in an emotional culture, emotion may be valued highly as an indicator of commitment and passion: a highly charged, noisy, boisterous, angry meeting may be seen as successful in an emotional culture and a disaster in a more neutral one!

4. Specific vs. Diffuse
A specific culture is one in which individuals have a large public space they readily share with others and small private space guard closely and share with only close friends and associates. A diffuse culture is one in which public space and private space are similar in size and individuals guard their public space carefully, because entry into public space affords entry into private space as well. People from a specific culture tend to conduct themselves differently in different circumstances, all of which can be observed by others. For example, a manager may be seen to behave differently in a formal meeting where she is referred to as Mrs. H and adopts a directive style, with her team where she is known as Sarah and works collaboratively, or attending a social event with a junior member of her team where they treat each other as equals. In more diffuse cultures, the private space tends to be larger and there is less obvious differentiation: for example, in Germany ‘Herr Professor Doktor’ is likely to use this formal title at all times, even in social situations, and his leadership style may be more consistently formal in a range of different contexts.

5. Achievement vs. Ascription
In an achievement culture, people are accorded status based on how well they perform their functions. In an ascription culture, status is based on who or what a person is. This leads to differences in the levels of respect accorded to others and specifically impacts on how people value age, social status and, in some cases, gender. This achievement orientation can be heard in phrases such as, “If you are good enough, you are old enough” (typical of a meritocracy) and can be seen in the way able young graduates are fast tracked into senior roles in business. The ascription orientation is more likely to mean that there is a stronger sense of hierarchy based upon age and experience, in which elders in a community are revered and in which younger staff would be unwilling to question or challenge their older colleagues.

In addition to these differences, two very obvious cultural issues have an impact on facilitation. The first is in our relationship with time. Many Western cultures see time passing us by, never to be available again. Asked to draw a visual representation of time, they will draw a linear representation. This view of time leads to us
thinking of ‘missed deadlines’ or ‘wasted time’. In contrast, many Eastern cultures see time as cyclical, may draw it as a series of circles or spirals, and think of time as ‘coming round again’. This may remove the urgency to do things by a deadline or to be confident that the impact of a choice will ‘come back to you’ at a later stage. The second difference is the question of internal and external control: do we control out environment or does our environment control us? This can be seen in the extent to which people feel that their behaviour can make a difference to what happens to them, or a more fatalistic approach in which ‘what will happen will happen’.
For facilitators, these are not small matters. They can have a huge impact on the way in which we approach and encourage dialogue, the expression of emotion
and adherence to rules and norms. They determine whether people will be more comfortable in groups or working as individuals. They suggest the likely outcome of perceived agreements and plans, the willingness of individuals to offer feedback or challenge to others, the choices people will make between groups they belong to when their loyalties are challenged and the extent to which negotiation is possible. We are regularly taught to be sensitive to the language we use, the etiquette we adopt and the ‘pitfalls’ of demonstrating culturally insensitive behaviour. However, as facilitators, we need to be sensitive to culture at a much deeper level. And this applies to all cultures: families, communities, departments, organisations, teams and not just to nationalities, races or religions.

Ann Alder
Training Director

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