How to Declaw Culture’s Impact on Change: Be Dogmatic about Dialogue, not Do’s & Don’ts

“Globalization on Steroids + Hyper Industry Disruption + Job Uncertainty & Constant Change” = Reality for most professionals circa 2018.


So does cultural awareness still have an “extremely important impact on Change” as reported in Prosci’s 2016 “Best Practices in Change Management”?

My gut instinct tells me “no”. And I’m not fresh off the boat (4 yrs in Asia, 17 in Europe).

As a result my 20 + years abroad, here’s how I feel about cultural do’s & don’ts:


The same instinct also tells me to look deeper when skepticism rears its head (thus, this post).

As accelerating Change and disruption is the only sure thing of the last 20 years, this question is relevant for anyone working in an organization (small/large, public/private). In fact, Change is the one constant force in every region, industry and organization; disruption the norm (telephony, education, retail).

Incidentally, when I first moved to Germany in 2001, BMW was spinning from its failed merger with Rover (cultural misunderstandings at core of debacle). A few years later Daimler-Benz gave it a go with Chrysler only to end in flames several years and billions of dollars later.

But that was then, this is now right?

I’m not so sure.

Coming back to the recent Prosci research, 90% of those surveyed rated cultural awareness as either important or very important (as Change experts, Prosci knows a thing or two thousand about the subject).




About 4 years ago I was tasked to co-lead a 1-day workshop for a global team of sales professionals called “Negotiating Across Cultures”. Representing a cutting-edge global tech firm, this team needed a day to brush up on their cross-cultural negotiation skills (that’s right, a WHOLE day).

I was brought in as the cultural expert, my Czech-based Scottish co-facilitator the negotiating one. When presenting a piece on relevant cultural differences, I referenced my first-hand experience while explaining how Asian cultures are more hierarchical resulting in decisions by the few at the very top.

Shortly after my expert input we moved on to another activity which required participants from clustered cultures (e.g. Far East Asia) to present something about business behavior in their region. A few young Asian guys came forward and proceeded to debunk my astute cultural observation – ”not true, no more, old style”. Hence, my strong feelings on cultural generalizations.

The majority of my international working experience has been in the field of People and Organization Development where cultural differences play a significant role. But to emerge as the #1 issue in the report above ‘Global Awareness’ or ‘Change Agent Networks’ begs the question: Have we learned nothing!?

Every team I work with is full of people either working in different locations or mixed nationalities working in the same location. Either way, these teams either adapt to the common culture of the team or die.

Doesn’t it work the same in the organization?

Maybe not.

It appears to be more than just corporate culture that’s eating strategy for breakfast.




Let’s do a little experiment to test this out, i.e. create your own findings. Like me, your confirmation bias could be at play. After all, all the reports by the best sources in the world may or may not apply to you and your unique situation.

For each question below, choose the “cluster” that  you most agree with (red. blue, green or purple)*:

Culture & Change Question 1: What is the best strategy to get employee buy-in?

  1. Show that doing things in a different way is good for the next career step. (“Contest” – Anglo-Saxon cluster)
  2. Show that the credible experts and relevant decision-makers believe this new direction is best for the organization. (“Well-Oiled Machine” – Germany & Austria cluster)
  3. Show that all stakeholders have been consulted and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to implement the Change. (“Network” – the NL & Scandinavia cluster)

Your cluster:___________

Culture & Change Question 2: What is the best strategy to get stakeholder buy-in & involvement?

  1. Telling and selling is best strategy to influence stakeholders. (“Contest” – Anglo-Saxon cluster)
  2. Negotiating and decision-making with stakeholders is best strategy. (“Network” – the NL & Scandinavia cluster & “Well-Oiled Machine” – Germany & Austria cluster)
  3. Telling and selling is a good strategy but the “boss” should make all final decisions re. the best strategy to take. (“Pyramid” – Mexico, Portugal, Russia cluster)

Your cluster:___________

Culture & Change Question 3: What is the best way to handle conflict during the Change?

  1. Allow it because some conflict/confrontation brings out the best in people. (“Contest” – Anglo-Saxon cluster)
  2. Conflict should be avoided or de-escalated ASAP. (“Network” – the NL & Scandinavia cluster)
  3. Conflict can lead to unpredictable situations and must be prevented. (“Pyramid” – Mexico, Portugal, Russia cluster & “Well-Oiled Machine” – Germany & Austria cluster)

Your cluster:___________


*The clusters and above questions are informed by itim International’s “Culture and Change Management”.




Although this culture quiz is only a “snapshot”, I’d say that if you voted with your country’s cluster on 2 or more of the questions, national culture is very relevant to your Change situation/s. If you are aligned with various clusters on 2 or more questions, I’d say you’ve adapted to the cross-cultural environment in which you’re working.

However, the teams you lead and people you collaborate with may belong to the first group. Therefore, my best advice is to use similar questions with your team and have a dialogue about it – the item article is a great starting point.

Better yet, share with them your thoughts on the new Prosci research and ask them what they think about it, i.e. have an open, two-way dialogue. If not relevant, ask them what cultural differences are most relevant for them individually and for the team.

Above all, be dogmatic about dialogue, not do’s & don’ts and other cultural generalizations that may or may not apply.


If you’ve got an additional tip or idea, please share it in a comment below with me and my readership.

  • Thanks for these interesting thoughts, Tim! On stereotypes, I am of the conviction that they are necessary for orientation – for helping people to start their ways through the huge complexity of culture and the overload of impressions and experience they get at the beginning when they start dealing with people from other cultural backgrounds.
    The problem with stereotypes is that very often they block any kind of revision which could be made based on experience which doesn’t match with the „images“ made before.

    A combination which helps a lot to me is the bell curve for culture: That there is a „peak”on a certain characteristic of a behavior in a culture, but there are as well people from that culture which tend to other behaviors at the extreme ends of the curve. And when showing an overlap with another culture it becomes clear that in the end, it always depends from the individual you are dealing with…

    A further point interesting to discuss would be the relevance of national cultures. Here, I believe that this relevance is decreasing due to increasing globalization and digitalization/ modern ways of communication.
    In the end, there will be much more similarities within subcultures as amongst „one nation“.

    • Thanks for sharing, Mirjam! I agree – every individual handles culture (& change) differently. It is critical to understand the individual differences before you can support or manage them.

  • Thanks for the thread, Tim! I would agree with Marco. Often differences and misunderstandings are too quickly attributed to cultural factors … especially after the quick-fix intercultural trainings flooding the market.
    Basically, it comes down to trust. Can I trust this person or not – am I safe or in danger(fight, flight, appease). This is a gut response and is decided within the first 7 seconds of an encounter. Once I get on the same trust-page with a person … cultural issues appear in another and often very pleasant light. Stereotyping blocks our natural desire to connect.

  • Thanks Tim! Food for thought!
    I just add my two cents:
    * Instead of cultural differences between countries I think it is interesting to look at cultural differences between different humans. You will find people you can connect to easily where the process flows well synched near and far. Passport is not so much the differentiator – what matters if someone has been introduced in general to effective meeting concepts and communication principles.
    * I think we are radically “deconstructed” by age or rather juniority. Millenials force us to have an answer why we do things the way we do much more than someone our age in China, US or Mars. As much as orange is the new black, “age” might be the (not so) new “culture”.

    • Very interesting two cents, Marco! I like that – “age” might be the new “culture”. I think you’re on to something, thanks for sharing!

  • Nice article Tim! Very relevant topic given the hyper-change cycles we are facing in all industries due to disruption and also economic pressures to perform.

    I agree that the cultural dynamic is not as prevalent anymore – perhaps more so in very large classical organizations. But this has changed for mid-size to smaller corporations. Their need is to be agile and responsive – and this requires to tap into the systems, methods, styles and approaches which could render quick results, market entries and bring together global expertise and insight.

    The fast pace of change is not allowing people to settle for a status quo culture, but rather to adapt to the style and culture which is most effective to produce the best result. In the tech industry, this is very prevalent, with skills being drawn from across the world to work on a common platform.

    • Thanks, Siegfried. I love your take on all the new dynamics out there! As a fellow cultural transplant, I’m curious what you think are still relevant cultural dynamics at play between Germans and the rest of us who live and work here?