Colin Moon On The Importance Of Culture In Business
As an anthropologist, Colin Moon sees everything from a cultural perspective. He is fascinated by how culture affects us as human beings. An anthropologist looks at people and wonders:” Why? Why do they do that? Where does that come from? Has that behaviour got to do with culture?’ With that mindset, Colin helps businesses succeed by helping people from different business cultures to interact effectively.
Culture - so important for us all; yet we’re mostly unaware of it
At an early stage Colin knew he was intrigued by anthropology, the study of human behaviour, language and societies. However, he was also very much aware that career opportunities related to the subject were limited.
- Jobwise, you can't do much with a degree in anthropology; you can't get a job walking around observing people and wondering why they do what they do. Instead, you have to channel this interest into a profession, find your niche and that’s what I did, as a professional business speaker on multi-cultural teams.
Colin likes to refer to himself as an expert in ‘cross-border business teamwork’. It’s less intimidating than the title ‘anthropologist’, he says.
Colin explains that, if you’re interested in culture then you are probably also interested in languages, because language evolves from culture. He therefore chose to study both anthropology and languages - in his case French and German. His degree in French made it possible for him to work at colleges of higher education, while continuing with his studies in anthropology.
What Colin finds the most interesting about culture is the fact that we all have to learn it. We pick it up from the day we’re born - we adopt it, we adapt it, we fit in to it. It helps form us as the people we are and yet most of us are quite unaware of how much culture has formed us.
When we inherit characteristics or personality traits from our parents, it's within us, it’s what makes us unique. It’s our DNA. But when it comes to culture, somebody has shown us what to do and how to do it. We are products of the culture – or cultures – which surrounds us. We learn how to think, how to react, how to express ourselves. We assume the norms around us. Most of us like to fit in.
The role of an anthropologist in multicultural business today
For the last 20 years, Colin has been on the speaker circuit. He speaks at events, conferences and kick-offs, mainly in the Nordic area and in Europe. Colin explains that since we work in an ever-increasing international business world, the study of and respect for different business cultures has become ever more useful. His talks highlight the challenges and the rewards of working in an international environment. Colin explains:
- People generally think that you should start by looking at others, their culture and how they get things done. But that, actually, is not where to start. Our starting point is ourselves - ‘Know thyself’. Because when we look at other business cultures, we compare them with our own and how we get things done. In culture, everything is relative. You measure, rate and rank others according to where you are yourself. It is therefore a pre-requisite for successful international business – to know who you are so that you can understand others.
The only thing Swedes do is drink coffee
Colin has noticed that people from outside Sweden who have a placement here often experience a similar challenge.
- I´ve seen many examples of people, especially busy managers, coming to Sweden and not taking the time, or even having the interest, to understand what makes people tick in the Swedish workplace. They neglect the responsibility of doing their ”cultural homework” and all too often waltz in, expecting everything to be as they are used to or as they think is right.
Colin remembers meeting a foreign manager who was rather upset. He didn't think that the Swedes were working hard enough and he couldn’t understand how his staff didn’t think they had to be at work in order to work. They ‘worked from home’, often with sick children, or simply because they were of the opinion it didn’t make much difference, in this digitl age, where they worked just so long as they got the job done. The boss couldn’t get his head round the fact that the office was constantly half empty. Colin recalls:
- The boss said: ‘When they are here, all they do is drink coffee!’ I responded: ‘I think you should drink coffee with them.’ He replied: ‘I don’t have time for that!’ And I answered: ‘You should make time, because that's where a lot happens. It’s called ‘fika’. It’s coffee, a cake and a chat about all you need to know about your staff and what they think.’
Colin explains that what the manager hadn't realised is that in Swedish workplaces, the channels of communication are often very informal.
- The manager should have done his cultural homework instead of getting irritated. After all, Swedes usually get the work done! So much is to be gained by showing an appreciation for how others do things, That manager is a classic example of bringing values and ways of working from somewhere else, and expecting them to work anywhere.
What Colins finds amusing about Swedish meetings is just how many there are!
- Meetings are not only for transparency and alignment. And, yes, they are a sign that it’s all very democratic, where everybody, theoretically, gets a say. However, I think there is another reason for the number of meetings. Swedes in general are terrified that things could go wrong. Meetings are held to eliminate any risk of problems later down the line. People from other cultures may have a different approach to it. They deal with problems as they arise, and if it goes wrong, they just have to fix it there and then. For Swedes, that scenario is a nightmare! Better to invest time in the beginning with a few extra meetings and get it right than to stop halfway through the process. And who wants to admit they made a mistake? Not in this culture, they don’t.
Colin points out that we have all been stuck in pointless meetings. We might wonder why a meeting is being held, when we could have written down the main points of it in a three-sentence email. According to Colin, it can happen anywhere. Boring, pointless meetings is not just a Swedish phenomenon. Whereas the large number of meetings held in a week probably is.
The Swedish way of doing business
Colin’s impression is that when it comes to business in Sweden, non-Swedes often think that everything takes a lot of time.
- I just explain that Swedes like P words – process, project and planning. And all of this is somewhat time-consuming.
Colin emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with the ”Swedish PPP way”.
- We should try to look at how people get things done from different perspectives. The Swedish way might be a suitable way in some respects. The Russian way in others. The Swedes and the Danes have similar working cultures but they at times have different ways of getting things done. They almost always reach their goals although how they get there may be slightly different. Knowing how you get things done and why and how others get things done and why is the key to effective cross-border teamwork.
Cultural self-awareness as a leader
Colin emphasises that if he could give business people just one thing, it would be a large dose of cultural self-awareness. To help, Colin suggests asking yourself questions such as:
- Why do I think this is the right way of making a decision? Where does it come from? Is it my previous company experience? Is it my national or regional culture?
Apart from cultural differences, Colin reminds us that we should not forget all about the cultural similarities.
- It would be good if, as the foreign leader, you could arrange some activities with your international staff, with the aim of finding similarities in how you do things. You might use scales of 1 to 10 to indicate how you view different things. For example, flat leadership at one end and hierarchical leadership at the other. By asking ‘Where are you on this scale?’ You might find out that a French colleague is at the end of one side, and the Swedish colleague at the other. As a leader, you should then ask yourself what implications this has for your leadership style and how it affects everyday life at work.
Why being a native English-speaking leader can be a challenge
When Swedes and native, or more experienced, English-speaking managers interact, misunderstandings can occur.
- Only last week I attended a meeting where an English speaker mentioned a colleague at another branch and said: ‘Well, he's getting on a bit now…’. I could see that people round the table did not really understand what he meant - in this case that the person was getting too old for the job.
When Colin gives talks at companies, he highlights that sometimes it’s the native speakers who need training in order to grade their language. For example, to learn what’s an idiomatic expression and what’s not, and to be aware of that you, as the native speaker, have a linguistic advantage and that some use that to dominate a meeting.
To Colin, it's important to be honest. If there is an English-speaking leader coming in, ask her or him to agree that when something is said or written, it's okay for you to ask what it means, or ask them to repeat what’s been said in another way. It's called communication!
- I was at one company a few years ago that had native English-speaking leaders. The business language was English. At every meeting they had a “language break”, where everyone could speak their own language. That way, the non-native English speakers could summarize what they had just heard and help each other with the things they perhaps hadn’t fully understood.
The reward for managers who try to learn the language
New foreign managers, who have little or no knowledge about Sweden, often appreciate if Swedes or people who have been in the country for a while, help them understand Swedish culture.
- Leaders are quite lonely sometimes. Can you imagine coming to a foreign country that you know little about, to lead a team?
Among these foreign managers, Colin states that the most popular ones are those who make an effort to learn a bit of Swedish. It might go terribly wrong, but no one cares, because it shows they are trying. Colin says, it’s simple, everybody loves someone who tries to speak their language.
- As a foreign leader, even if you feel like you don’t have the time, I think it's an investment to try to learn the language. If you start the Monday meeting with two sentences in Swedish, it will get the week off to a good start. Sometimes, all it takes is a small gesture. Life is full of small, friendly gestures, no matter what culture.
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