July 22

Episode 45: Effective Management Across Multicultural Teams with Lisa DeWaard


In this episode, guest Lisa DeWaard defines some of the issues that global companies face when their teams are multicultural. Lisa walks Mike through the challenges that many companies face when hiring teams and talent from outside of the United States and how our perception of behavior in different cultures is based upon our own culture and upbringing. These perceptions often create misunderstandings. Lisa walks listeners through a case study of how she helps companies get past cultural misunderstandings.

Lisa DeWaard’s Biography

Lisa DeWaard is the CEO and Managing Director of Hofstede Insights USA, a global consulting giant based in Finland. She is a linguist and is certified in intercultural management and organizational culture.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn…

  • The difficulties of managing across cultures
  • Different styles of management associated with different countries
  • How culture develops within a population and how that affects work performance
  • How different cultures have different expectations in the workplace
  • How miscommunication develops between management and employees from different cultures
  • What are common trends are seen when managing a multicultural workforce
  • What to do if you are having troubles with an office of a different culture
  • The simplicity of solving communication issues due to culture


  • “We look at culture in an anthropological sense and we have data that plot what each culture’s score might be on a continuum.”—Lisa DeWaard
  • “Once you can identify what’s going on, you can address it.”—Lisa DeWaard
  • “You just have two different scripts for how work and business are to be done.”—Lisa DeWaard
  • “Once you understand, the solution oftentimes is not as complicated as one might think, but you have to have a trained set of eyes and ears.” -Mike O’Neill

Links & Resources Mentioned…

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Read The Transcript

Episode #45

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Podcast. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders and we're business coaches who love helping leaders sleep better because they've solved their tough planning, process, and people problems. In this podcast we're talking with thought leaders to get their insights on ways to help you or your business get unstuck. Joining me today is Lisa DeWaard. Dr. DeWaard is the managing director and CEO of Hofstede Insights USA. Hofstede is a global consulting giant based in Finland. Welcome Lisa. 

Lisa DeWaard: Hi, thank you for having me, Mike.

Mike O'Neill: Let me share more about you, Lisa, before we get started. Lisa has worked in the field of cross cultural communication for nearly 20 years. First as a linguist in the academic sector. And then later as an associate partner at Hofstede Insights, starting in 2017. Lisa is certified in intercultural management and organizational culture. Lisa is a specialist in Russia, Italy, Spain, and Latin America, and speaks Spanish, Italian, Russian and thankfully English. Lisa, I'm looking forward to our conversation. With that type of introduction it probably will come as no surprise to our listeners that today's topic is going to be managing across cultures. And I'd like to just jump right in to this. You don't know I'm about to ask this, but the tagline for your organization is we help companies become truly global. Tell me, when, when y'all use that tagline for your organization, what does that mean? 

Lisa DeWaard: Well, a lot of companies are global, right? Most large companies have affiliates or partners in a lot of different cultures, but we know from research that a poorly led multicultural team performs worse than any other kind of team, but a well led multicultural team outperformeds every other kind of team. So you have kind of an either or, on the extremes. And most people get stuck to use the, the name of your podcast series. They get stuck, but they don't realize that they're stuck. So different cultures have really different expectations of the role of the boss and the role of the employee. So. Most management theories come out of the U S but the U S is a culture that focuses on egalitarianism in the individual. And only 15% of the world's population lives in a culture like that. And so if you're trying to employ a management approach, That is not a natural fit for 85% of the world's population. You're going to have a lot of inefficiencies in terms of communication, and you may have a lot of burnout and probably not going to be as effective as you could. So learning some basic principles about what makes expectations different across cultures can be extremely useful. And that's what one of the service lines we have. That's one of the things we do at Hofstede Insights. 

Mike O'Neill: You know Lisa when I introduced that we're going to be talking about managing across cultures. Listeners might say, well, that doesn't apply to me. We don't really have, a global presence. And I don't know if this will make sense, but it seems as if more and more of our clients, have moved into more of a global setting. And though they may or may not have lab employees that, that are international, they're working more and more with customers. They're working with suppliers, but you made an interesting point that I did not realize. And that is the vast majority of the world operates when we're talking about management styles very different than we do in the United States.

Lisa DeWaard: Right.

Mike O'Neill: Most of our listeners  of this podcasts are US-based, but we do have international listeners as well, but we'll probably spend most of our time talking today about a US-based companies who are dealing with cultural issues. When we talk about culture, that term gets batted around a lot. It can define a lot of things for our purposes. How would you like to kind of describe the culture? How what's the context in which we'll be talking today when you're talking about culture? 

Lisa DeWaard: Well, we like to look at the three layers of a person. So we talk about a triangle and the base of the triangle, the broadest part, my virtual filters taking my hands away. The broadest part of the bottom of the triangle. Every human shares by virtue of being human. So it's our human nature. So physiology, psychology, basic human needs and desires. Then there's a layer above that. That is culture. So broad trends within a particular group. And at the very top, the smallest part of the triangle, we have each individual's unique personality. So we look at these three layers when we talk to people about culture. And what we see is that in a group, you have these broad tendencies, as I described. That are socialized into children from the time they're born, till around puberty, we consider this and research suggests that the setting of these values parameters, is accomplished around or just before puberty. And then these tend to kind of guide our reactions to things. So our definition is the, the, programming of the human mind by which one group differs from another group. And so Hofstede was using a software metaphor, but it's really just the way kids are raised. So when we look at kids raised in a monocultural environment, where there's really just one predominant culture, like a lot of areas in the U S then they are going to internalize these US values in the home. They're going to internalize them, have them reinforced in school and by peers. Some kids are raised in multicultural spaces or they've got a parent from one culture, a second parent or caregiver from another, maybe they live in a different culture. Those kids are called third culture kids and they don't tend to follow exactly the same pattern, although if they don't move and they spend their childhood in one place, they'll typically internalize the values of that place. Even more than the values in the home because of the importance of the role of peers as they grow. So we look at culture in this kind of anthropological sense, and we have data that plot what each cultures score might be on a continuum. So egalitarian to hierarchical, it's our first dimension, we call it power distance.

So in a culture like the U S we have hierarchies. For the sake of convenience. So we have a hierarchy at work because it's important to know which way information is going to flow. And who's going to take responsibility and be accountable at different levels, et cetera. And some other cultures and this would be roughly 85% of the rest of the world. There's a hierarchy built into the system of the culture that exists everywhere, in the schools, in businesses, in government. So if you outrank someone, you were accorded more power in society and, you probably also have more privilege in that society. So we don't like that idea in the U S because we're very focused on everyone being equal, but most of the world isn't, and it creates different expectations at work. And these can very severely conflict. So my culture of greatest specialization besides having been raised in the U S is Russia. Russia's very hierarchy. So in a hierarchy in a very power distance to use our term culture, this means that information only flows vertically. You can't jump the level. You can't write the CEO and email and express your thoughts. You are restricted to communicating with the person who ranks above you and the person perhaps that reports to you. Information is tightly controlled. The information flow is really tightly controlled and the expectations that the employee has of the boss or that the boss is going to set the task, set the timeline, tell them what to do, how to do it. And by when and their job is to obey. And this is really hard, even for me sometimes to wrap my head around. Because taking initiative is discouraged quite often, because it may look like you're trying to out shine your boss, and cause your boss problems, or you could get in trouble with your boss. And it gets much more complicated when we take the other aspects of cultural values that we have in our model altogether.

But. Something like, management by objectives, where you set some objectives together, you and your boss. And then the boss is like, no news is good news, right? I'll assume you're doing the work. I'll assume you're doing a good job. And, we'll get back together around the time of the deadline. That does not work in a hierarchical culture and the hierarchical style of management quite often, to people from the U S sounds like micromanagement, which we are just allergic to. We, people don't like that here. So if you don't realize these differences and you're an ex-pat manager, say from Russia or India in the U S your deeply ingrained expectations are that you're going to be in charge and they're going to obey what you. Same as if an American ex-pat goes to say Southern Italy, they're going to expect to give some broad strokes ideas and then expect that the people are going to go off and work on it and have things done and come up with their own ideas and get together when the deadline approaches. And they get together when the deadline approaches and usually things aren't done because it wasn't seen as a priority to the employee because the expectation was, if it's a priority, they're going to check in. So the expectations, the kind of opposite expectations can cause so much frustration. And people don't usually understand first that it can be cultural. They think maybe it's a difficult person. And so it can actually be very relieving to find out that there's a cultural issue. Because once you can identify what's going on, you can address it. Right. But if it just seems like this odd kind of off feeling interaction, you don't know how to address it. 

Mike O'Neill: So, Lisa, let's kind of break this down a little bit more if you don't mind. I imagine that the nature of your clients is diverse. The, as a general rule, Do does your area of responsibility are you working with US-based companies who are bringing in folks from other cultures or are you more often working with non US-based companies who are trying to establish a presence in United States?

Lisa DeWaard: Oh, everything. Working with everything earlier in the year, I was working with, a us company that has a joint venture in France. A few years ago, I worked with a us company that had opened, an office in Bangalore India. I was just contracted to work with a global company. That's headquartered in Belgium, but I'm working with their us counterparts here. So it's all different kinds of industries, different size companies, but the same kind of need that there's something we're not doing in the best way. And we do think that getting some clarity will help. 

Mike O'Neill: You know you've raised something I hadn't thought about, and that is, joint ventures. It could very well be that the listener is a leader in a US-based company, but is considering a joint venture with a company in a different country that would maybe have different cultures. This would be a great application. I, I know you come out of academia and your, your PhD comes through kind of loud and clear. You're very very wise to a lot of the things that I'm not. But in practical terms, how do you assess when you're working with a client? What is it y'all use to assess that you can use that information for, to help the client what's the process look like?

Lisa DeWaard: Sure. So usually, a client will write into our website and say, I'm interested in intercultural management or I'm having trouble with this team, or what can you tell me about how organizations should be structured? It should be structured and sometimes they know really well what it is they need. And sometimes they don't. So they'll always have an intake call where I do a needs analysis. So ask a lot of questions. Take a lot of notes. Start giving little bits of feedback, like have you experienced, it sounds like you could be experiencing this, relating it to the model we have. And if they say, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it. Then we start to get an idea of what's really at the heart of the issue. For some clients, if they want us to do a workshop and they want the workshop participants to learn the cross-cultural model and then apply it to diagnose problematic situations or to predict where pain points will be or to come up with solutions based on the different needs of the partners in, from each culture. Then we'll create a case study and I'll interview six people for an hour from the company, whoever they tell me to interview. And this has proven to be really extraordinarily useful because I get a very clear view of their daily work reality. An idea of what kinds of cross-cultural problems they've had in the past. And, then I write a fictionalized account of a fictional problem and they use our database to do these things to diagnose and to suggest solutions. And then we kind of guide them through, some more practical, concrete action steps. Okay. So now that you know this, what are some actual practical things you can do to not just resolve it, but to really learn, to get the best out of all of your employees? No matter where their from. 

Mike O'Neill: This is probably an unfair question, but I'm going to ask it nonetheless. You've described a number of scenarios in which your organization works with clients, but as you step back and look at, from the perspective of the CEO for Hofstede Insights USA , and for the sake of this podcast, assume that speaking to a US-based companies. Do you see common trends that we w that we may or may not be picking up on? And if so, what are the kinds of things that you oftentimes find? 

Lisa DeWaard: So, gosh, there are many things, but, if I can step back for one second and just tell you what this database is. And this model is just very quickly, so it doesn't just sound like some strange, unclear thing. We actually have a database that is made up of survey data from people from 110 countries. And Hofstede in the sixties was, an engineered IBM in Amsterdam. IBM decided to do a global employee satisfaction survey. And as he was tasked with analyzing the data, he started to notice statistically significant patterns and clustering of answers within national borders. And no one was looking for this and it was a very surprising finding. And as he submitted the data to further statistical analysis, it became clear that there were different values that different countries held or different cultures, but since it does also reflect boundaries. And that these were really important to understand, to make communication clearer. So we talk about hierarchy, like I said. If the culture prioritizes the individual, or if a culture lives in large interdependent groups, like a collectivist culture, which is also 85% of the world, 85% is hierarchical and collectivist. So the U S is an outlier. Then there is our third dimension that looks at is your focus on achievement or quality of life. And that's one where the U S really can have some issues with other cultures, that's it indicates,  why we, people brag about working 12 hour days, or never taking vacation and how they've always got their cell phone on. A lot of cultures aren't like that and they think we're crazy. And, I said, well, I mean, I'm sure it does look that way to you, but we're brought up here to have our career as a significant part of our personal identity. And in cultures that differ from us in that dimension work is just one small part of who they are, and it's not their primary focus. So you go to a conference in the U S and it's, hi, what's your name? What do you do? You go somewhere else where they, don't, where they have a different value. That's balanced quality of life. That's going to be a strange question for them. What do you do? The fourth one is uncertainty avoidance. So how nervous does the unknown make a particular group of people? The US is quite low. We don't get very nervous. We like to pivot, experiment, try different things. It's really great for innovation.

But it means we can be less structured a lot of times than some of our, some neighboring countries. Then we look at long-term orientation and indulgence. So we take those six together. And when you learn how to, when you learn how they interact, you get a really unique profile for each country. So one issue that comes up a lot to get back to your question is, in this joint venture between the US and France earlier, it was the French won't email me back after work. They won't text me back. It only takes a second. You know, if I text him on Saturday, why don't they just text me back? And I said, well, France actually is a culture that values quality of life and has career as only one piece of someone's life. Not there, one of the primary aspects of their identity. So this value is so strongly held in France that the government has made it illegal to answer emails or texts or any kind of work calls after hours or on the weekends, and you can get written up to HR for it. And when I explain that to some people that were frustrated, they said, oh, my word, I had no idea. I said, well, that's, you know, that's where we have conversations like this. And, had an unique perspective from one of those, those people who was from France that said, when they tell me they work 12 hours a day, I think are they so bad at their job that they can't get their work done in eight hours? I thought I've never thought of it that way before. Right? Because putting in a lot of time shows you're motivated shows you care about your work over here, but over there, it, it looks different. Being egalitarian and individualist has those boss employee expectation differences. That I talked about earlier. And, uncertainty avoidance is a dimension that really, causes trouble in mergers and acquisitions. Because how uncomfortable you are about the future has an impact on how many steps you want to build in to every process to build in predictability. So that there's less unknown. So the US has more of an idea of why does it matter how I get there as long as I get the result, but other cultures say the process is the most important thing. You do not deviate from the process. So these can be things that can cause misunderstandings. If there's a merger or an acquisition from we're across two cultures where one is extremely structured and the other, like the U S is much less structured. Then our process looks a little bit like a ladder or step a staircase. So, so we'll jump in and try something then we'll evaluate, and then we'll adjust. But cultures that are very highly uncertainty avoidant. They say no, no, no. We do not act until we've ruled out every potential problem, thought through a solution and created a protocol that we think will work optimally for the situation. So they take a really long time before they take any action. So what can happen? The US can look at this other culture that isn't starting to get to the action point and just talking about problems that can come up, which we also don't like, we don't like to talk about problems only solutions. And so they think the other culture is dragging their feet. Maybe they're not invested in this project, which isn't true. And then an uncertainty avoidant culture can look at the U S partner and go look how hasty and sloppy they are. Like, they're just jumping in. Right away before they've even looked at the entire set of issues that can come up and prepared for them. So, which isn't true each, I mean, the misconception each way is simply that a misconception, the U S is invested the U S isn't sloppy, but our process looks different just like an uncertainty avoidant culture, like France, like Belgium, like Russia. They're not uninvested. They're just working on process in advance instead of as they go. And, but it can really cause trouble. 

Mike O'Neill: Lisa, these examples are fascinating and I appreciate you sharing those. Would you reflect on maybe an example? Whereas you've got a client that concluded yikes were stuck and what got them stuck and was done to help get them unstuck? 

Lisa DeWaard: Sure. Yeah. A couple of years ago I was working with, an American company and they were quite a large company. And three years before that point, three years before they reached out, they had opened an office in Bangalore India. And so the account executives were located in the U S and software developers were located in Bangalore. And so the time zone issue was a problem. Of course, time zones are a nightmare to juggle when you work cross culturally, but you just have to, right. So the Indian group was coming in in the morning, taking several hours off and then coming in an evening. So they only had an overlap of a couple of hours each day. And so the U S account managers, as soon as they would get in, would send an, IM where's the report and they would get back. Hi, how are you, how are your children? Did you have a nice weekend? And the account executive is like, what, what, what is happening? Like where's the report? Like, why aren't you telling me where the report is? And the Indian person is saying, why do they not want to get to know me? So if we look at these two dimensions that I started talking about at the beginning hierarchy and collectivism, In a hierarchical collectivist society like India, your work and your private life are not separate things. It is one thing. And the relationship component of work is more important or takes precedence over, getting the task done because relationship is part of business. And they were saying, if we knew each other better, we could trust each other more. We would work together more efficiently . An egalitarian culture that is individualist says we don't have to like each other we just have to work together. Let's get our work done. It's not personal. And if we decide we like each other and we want to hang out outside of work, that's just a bonus, but it's not necessary. So those two implications had and there were some other things as well, but I remember very strongly, this was a point that came up when we surveyed people at the India office and the U S offices. This was a sticking point and this was a place where they did kind of feel stuck, but it took them three years to realize maybe these issues are cultural. And so the fix actually quite simple and most of the fixes for cross-cultural issues aren't that complicated, but you have to understand why they're necessary and where they're coming from. So we gave the same exact workshop material to both groups. We explained to the U S side relationship is part of business. They don't separate these, and if they don't feel like they know you and trust you, you're not going to get their best work. Another supervisor that they know and trust is going to get their best work.

And that might not sound right appropriate to Americans, but our way doesn't sound appropriate to them either. Right. So I said, when they say, how are you, how was your weekend? Just answer one or two words, never say or share anything you're not comfortable saying or sharing. No, one's going to expect you to do that. But any little bit that you can share will go a long way. So then the Americans started saying, oh no, I've messed up I've messed up. And I said, no one's messed up. You just have two different scripts for how work and business are to be done. And you've been working by a perfectly fine American script, right? No. One's telling you to change your values. We never tell anyone to change their values. It's impossible for the most part. And it's also unethical. So it's what small behavioral adaptations can each group make to smooth things over. We told the Indian group in the U S. Personal and work life are very separate things. They don't overlap, but they don't have to. And then they said, oh no, I had no idea. Right. Was that again? You haven't done anything wrong, either you're working the Indian way. And we found out later that some of the teams had started to do a social newsletter, which I thought was really interesting. So they would create this newsletter, co-create it sometimes the Indian group would do it. Sometimes the us group would do it. Sometimes they would do it together. It was just about their personal lives. And again, not making anyone share things they didn't want to, but it really brought them together as a team. And, I think it had a really good result.

Another thing is nepotism. What we consider nepotism is just considered good business in 85% of the world. Why wouldn't you hire someone you already know and trust, why wouldn't you hire the graduate from your university because you cultivated them and poured so many resources into them. Why would you ship them off to another school, which is what we do in academia here. You rarely get your PhD and then stay at your university cause we want to prevent what we call academic inbreeding. We don't want ideas. We don't want people to get stuck in, research ruts or I idea ruts and be less creative. And they don't understand that you, you raise up all these great graduate students and you ship them off to benefit someone else. It doesn't make sense. So we also have to cover legal points sometimes because you can get in trouble for nepotism in the US. 

Mike O'Neill: Yeah. As I'm listening to you, describe the issues that you deal with on a daily basis. It can get complicated fast. I was encouraged to hear that at the end of the day, once you understand the solution, oftentimes is not as complicated as one might think. But you've got to have a trained set of eyes and ears, and I'm glad we've got folks like you and your organization who can do just that. Know, Lisa as you kind of reflect on our time together, we've covered a lot. But if you were to kind of summarize the takeaways, you would want our listeners to have, what might they be? 

Lisa DeWaard: One don't wait three years. If you're having, if you're having trouble with an office in a particular culture, that's different from yours. And there are a lot of misunderstandings. Always going to be some kind of cultural component. Sometimes their individual personalities, that clash, but there usually are some overarching cultural misunderstandings. Second I've I say a lot I think about 90% of what we do is raising the awareness that systems are different and that's fine. And about five, 10% is changes. That usually aren't super complicated. And, we are a small organization in the U S I mean, we just opened up in 2020 the U S office, but we're connected to this global network. So if someone calls and says, we're expanding into Japan and we don't understand the culture and I say, well, I'm not an expert on Japan, but I've got 20 people in my network that are so I can immediately put you in touch with them. We can craft something and, we can actually do very large projects, because we can scale up easily with our network of 150 people in 62 countries. 

Mike O'Neill: Lisa, as people have been listening to you, describe the nuances and sometimes not nuances of managing across cultures. If they want to reach out to you, what's the best way for folks to connect with you online?

Lisa DeWaard: Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Mike O'Neill: Okay. 

Lisa DeWaard: So they can just hit a request to connect or send me a personal message and I'm delighted to get in touch with people. 

Mike O'Neill: I'll say this now. And we'll include this in the show notes. Lisa DeWaard, it's Lisa spelled, as you would expect. L I S A, but your last name is D E W A A R D. 

Lisa DeWaard: I have a Dutch last name. So it's got two a's in there. Throws Americans off a lot. 

Mike O'Neill: Well, but fret, not if you didn't get that, that will be included in the show notes. Lisa. I learned a lot. Thank you. 

Lisa DeWaard: My pleasure.

Mike O'Neill: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target. Every Thursday, we upload the latest episode to all the major platforms. So if you haven't already please subscribe. You know, life really is too short to let business problems keep you up at night. So if you've been listening to my conversation with Lisa and you're realizing that something is keeping your business stuck let's talk, go to our website, bench-builders.com or just go to your browser and type unstuck.show to schedule a quick call. So I want to thank you for joining us, and I hope you've picked up on some tips that will help you Get Unstuck & On Target. Until next time.

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