Are you we? Or are you I?

And she said WHAT?

Working in an international organization, I see that we have a strange mixed relationship to our awareness of cultural differences. We think about them when we go to the field, especially if the field is an actual field (as in “rural”). But we try to forget that they exist when we’re at headquarters, interacting with our colleagues from all over the world.

I was reminded of that today when a small group of colleagues disagreed about how you best frame a problem you have with how the team does things. Do you say: “I don’t like this.” or rather “As a group we could achieve so much more if we changed this.” If you come from a culture that puts a high value on individual responsibility and ownership, you probably think telling what you don’t like is honest, you are taking ownership and you leave it to the others to decide what they will do about it. And you feel that talking about how the group could benefit from changing is just trying to hide what you want behind some politically correct, unclear diffusion of your own agenda.

If, on the other hand, you come from a group oriented culture, “I don’t like this” may feel like watching a screaming toddler who wants everyone to jump to their likes and dislikes, taking no responsibility for the larger good. And framing a change you advocate for in the light of the group’s benefit is the natural way to show how you care and that your own desires only really matter if they are aligned with the benefit of the bigger group.

And if we choose to ignore our cultural differences, it is very possible to have a conversation between two well meaning colleagues where one thinks the other is pushing a hidden agenda while the other thinks their colleague is a pushy egomaniac. While both feel very confident they are being responsible and communicating to the highest standards (of their respective cultures).

(Disclaimer: Our team discussion got to the point of making the differences explicit so everyone left with renewed respect for the other person’s good intentions…)

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