Even with cultural similarities, cultures can still have cultural difficulties [4-min read]
In this case study, I want to illustrate a project I’ve done recently in Ecuador, South America with a petrochemical company involving Ecuadorians and Chinese.
This happened a couple of years ago. But in 2022 you can draw the same similarities at what is happening between Ukraine and the Russian Federation [Updated November, 2022]
What You Will Learn
- Even when cultures follow the same cultural trend, it can still be difficult to cooperate
- Similarity doesn’t guarantee a smooth cooperation
- How to make use of existing cultural similarities
- Practical tips to facilitate cultural integration and effectiveness
This is originally an Ecuadorian company that was taken over in 2005 by a Chinese state-owned company. The head office is in Quito (the capital of Ecuador) but the operations are mainly in the Amazon rainforest areas.
There are about 600 Chinese and 600 Ecuadorians working on the operational side, with another 50 Chinese and 50 Ecuadorians manning the head office in Quito.
The common language that is spoken is English and of course the Chinese speak their language among each other, as well as the Ecuadorians, do.
A Big Barrier: Language
One of the biggest barriers to working effectively with these two cultures is and was language. Even though the Chinese boss of the head office in Quito spoke Spanish, all the other people could only communicate in English with each other. And the level of English spoken on both sides wasn’t that terrific.
The Two Cultures Compared
If you want to know a bit more about the long-standing relationship between the two countries click here.
For a cultural comparison take a look at the following table.
To understand more about what these dimensions mean, go here. Any difference that is more than 10 points is a significant difference.
As you can see, there are more cultural similarities than cultural differences. But cultural similarities do not mean that there won’t be cultural difficulties. And there were difficulties between the two cultures. And for that reason, I went to Quito to have two half-day sessions with the people in this company to increase their cultural awareness and to give them practical tips on how to deal with their difficulties despite their cultural similarities. The groups were of mixed cultures.
Let’s take a closer look at each cultural dimension.
There is no significant difference in the score Hierarchy. But when two cultures need to work together and they both score high on hierarchy, there is a potential conflict for the employees, namely, to whom are you loyal? If you’re Ecuadorian and your boss is Chinese, are you loyal to your Chinese boss or are you loyal to your other Ecuadorian boss?
The other issue that could arise (and which it did in this case) is that there can be a conflict on who should be the boss in the first place. And that there will be envy by the other culture because they are not the ones being the boss.
In this dimension, there is a slightly significant difference. But it’s not a lot. But the consequence of having two cultures that score both low (collectivistic or have their loyalty to their own group), is significant.
If the loyalty of culture is toward their own group (=low score as is the case here or collectivistic), they will not be open to the other group. In this case, the Chinese kept to themselves as did the Ecuadorians. There was a clear lack of teamwork between the two groups. This was not very effective. Both groups tolerated each other more than they cooperated with each other; they were two cultural islands within one company.
Again, you can see those cultural similarities are no recipe for smooth cooperation.
Also here we see a very similar score.
But this cultural similarity could be used to the company’s advantage. You see, both cultures are relatively high in their Goal Orientation. This means that they are both motivated to work hard and reach goals and deadlines.
Creating common goals where integrated teams can work together to achieve those would be a very good way of turning this cultural similarity into a competitive advantage.
Here we see the biggest and most significant difference between the two cultures.
Interestingly enough, this cultural difference did not lead to any difficulties. Here’s why:
A high score indicates roughly that people need and want structure and clarity in their work. Clearly defined project plans could be an example of this. So, this would be the case for the Ecuadorians.
But, and here it gets a bit complicated, the Chinese also worked with meticulous details. Not because Chinese in general want or need lots of rules and structure, no.
But because the Chinese boss in Quito also had a boss in Bejing China. Therefore the high level of detail that the Chinese required was not driven by the need for structure, details, and rules, but was driven by Hierarchy! The Chinese boss in Quito had to perform because he had a boss in China too. And that boss had a boss, who had a boss, etc. Remember that this was a state-owned company in the end.
As you could have seen, cultural similarities are not always, and more often than not, a recipe for success. Even cultural similarities can and will lead to cultural difficulties.
So, after two half-day sessions, what were the takeaways? What were/are some practical tips that you can do?
- Build your cultural competence; become aware of the cultural differences, or in this case cultural similarities. And understand that those similarities can still lead to cultural difficulties. Follow a workshop.
- Actively build bridges between the two groups. This can be done by direct orders from above.
- Ritualize meetings and get-togethers to facilitate mutual interactions.
- Communicate clearly who’s in charge of what, why, and for how long this will be (if you’re working on infinite projects).
- In this case, make use of the similarity in the cultural dimension Goal Orientation. Create common goals with common deadlines, where integrated teams work together. In the end, celebrate success.
If you want to read another case study, click here.
A specific article on how to do business with China can be found here.
An example of a retail business can be found here.
Want to avoid the most common mistakes when working internationally? Read this article.
Do cultural differences make you smile or cry? Read the article here.
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