Growing international teams: how Geert Hofstede can help

Lindsay Hong, the head of Locaria, explains how Geert Hofstede's teachings are applicable in the workplace.

Planning and managing the extremely rapid growth of Locaria over the last few years has been a thrilling roller coaster. Despite our HQ being in London, until very recently I was the only native English speaker, and only person to have grown up in the UK. Naturally, with so many nationalities and cultures working closely together, there have been many challenging moments, so I thought I would share what I have learnt so far.

Consider cultural dimensions when structuring teams

As an MBA student, I came across the seminal work of Geert Hofstede, and the dimensions he developed to explain how cultures are defined. While this work is not at the individual level, it is a useful framework to consider how new hires may fit into existing reporting structures.

For example, thinking about whether a new team member comes from a high or low Power Distance culture, and how that will fit with their line manager’s expectations can help ensure they establish effective ways of working. An employee who is from a relatively low Power Distance culture (e.g. Italy) will have a hard time formally reporting to a boss from a high Power Distance culture (e.g. China) unless they accept the boss’s legitimacy as their leader. At the same time, the boss may feel challenged and frustrated at what could be seen as a lack of respect from their employee.

In this situation, the boss’s legitimacy will not be established by their title, but will need to be demonstrated through knowledge and experience. To expedite this process, information should be shared with the employee to demonstrate the boss’s past achievements, where they have worked before, what they can teach the employee etc. At the same time the boss should try to direct the energy coming from the employee’s questions and challenges into activity which the employee can use to establish their own legitimacy. This will indirectly demonstrate the boss’s expertise, while also establishing themselves as the servant-leader.

If it’s the other way around with a high Power Distance employee reporting to a low Power Distance boss, the boss may perceive the employee as lacking creativity, when really the employee is not coming up with challenging ideas. Rather than lacking ideas, the employee may actually be hanging back because they believe challenging would be disrespectful towards their boss. In this situation, the boss should ensure they are giving the employee an appropriate outlet for their feedback (such as an individual one-to-one session, or an anonymous survey) and enshrine the process of feedback into the everyday culture of the team, so that the employee understands it is not inappropriate.

Remember the individual experience

Hofstede’s dimensions are established extremely early in life, so entirely escaping them is pretty tough. Cultural dimensions are therefore useful empirical generalisations on which to initiate forming a strategy, but they are not the whole story.

Some changes can occur with prolonged exposure and interaction with a new culture. Furthermore, an individual’s personality impacts on on how those dimensions are expressed in everyday behaviour, so it is always important to understand how a person’s “back story” has shaped their individual values.

Many members of our internal project management team have lived and worked in various countries, have a multilingual and cross-cultural environment at home, or a passionate interest in a culture other than their own. This means that they may still exhibit their home cultural dimensions, but perhaps to a lesser degree. They may also have learned to apply the local cultural norms in certain situations in order to increase the probability of a successful outcome. Lastly, corporate culture also has an influence. A Japanese person who has worked in an American corporation for an extended period, possibly learning their trade there, may well see the culture of that organisation as the norm. This leads me onto the role of our corporate culture in growing our international team.

Set values

We have offices in multiple locations, staffed by people from all over the world. This results in a complex spectrum of norms across the cultural dimensions. So what ties this all together? We have a set of values which inform everything we do:

  • Always teaching, always learning
  • Use technology to innovate
  • Take the initiative
  • Do some good along the way
  • Go global, think local

Developing a team with a shared set of values begins with making the entrance criteria for new hires aligned to our values. Being extremely rigorous in ensuring our hires share the same passion for language, proactive approach, desire to learn and adapt, and commitment to leaving things better than when you found them, means we establish a shared culture from day one. We ensure all hires understand our reason for being, the history of our growth and what we have learnt along the way. We are developing a uniquely cross-skilled team that has the high regard for language you find in a translation agency with the commercial approach and digital skills of a marketing agency. When we find people with that potential who also demonstrate our values, we are able to say “you’re so Locaria, come and join us”. This transcends the cultural dimensions of their home or host nation.

Celebrate variety and be humorous

We also love our differences and are the first to laugh at each other. We have a map on the wall with pictures of the central team linking to their home country. Every person has either dressed up or is holding something to represent their nationality. When we came up with this idea much laughter was generated as people chose their emblems, often mocking themselves in the process.

We have all chosen to be part of a very international company and have a high level of respect for cultural nuances. Indeed our proposition to clients demonstrates how taking appropriate care of international content will delight local audiences and drive commercial performance. That does not mean we take ourselves too seriously however, and calling out each other's little idiosyncrasies builds a close team.

Building a high-performing international team is a complex and ongoing journey, but highly rewarding for both us and our clients, so undoubtedly worth the effort. Whether you are building your team in house, or seeking external support to help you reach your international goals, I hope the learnings above provide some useful ideas to help along the way.

Lindsay Hong is head of Locaria, an affiliated international and performance linguistics agency part of digital marketing agency, Forward3D

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