HR Is the Chef of the Global Cultural Melting Pot

Too often foreign managers choose the safety of operating according to stereotypes, however the more successful expats are curious to understand what lies beneath.

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Head offices around the world are often a melting pot of nationalities. People bring their unique history and culture to the workplace, and in the name of collaboration there is always a certain compromise as they adopt the overarching corporate culture.

There are people from more than fifteen different countries in my hallway at work – if we all maintained our own way of doing things, it could make misunderstanding likely and cooperation impossible. Every corporate culture is different, and when you join a company, you tend to spend the first few weeks deciphering its cultural code. When I was at Bacardi, it was common to greet colleagues with three cheek kisses on arriving in the office every morning. At PMI that just wouldn’t seem normal.

The challenge comes when local offices try to adopt this central culture. In head office, our rough edges are smoothed to allow a cross-section of global employees to collaborate, however in the local offices of many markets it can still be incredibly important to retain local values and traditions. Hence it is not a question of cultural adaptation, but of cultural blend. A corporate culture cannot 100% adapt to a local culture or vice versa.

Take the example of a Nordic company with a local office in Japan. Nordic companies tend to have a non-hierarchical structure with rewards based on merit and a focus on equality. The Japanese culture values social hierarchy, relative status, and a tenure-based reward system. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties. In Japan, it might be expected that those in senior management positions command respect and expect a certain level of formality and deference from junior team members, where Scandinavian cultures tend to have relatively informal communications and an emphasis on cooperation across the hierarchy.

That global / local balancing act is the domain of HR, and it is a significant responsibility. The role of the local HR Director is to find the cultural balance for their office. If they are able to achieve the right blend between what works globally and what works locally, their employees will be able to influence on a wider stage.

In 2015, I delivered a leadership development journey for a group of just such global HR leaders who came from 21 different countries. Throughout that year I could see that they were different in countless ways: humor, trust, openness, how comfortable they were to speak up, whether they would express a differing opinion, individuality/collectivism, etc. It is not surprising that many of our discussions revolved around how their respective local cultures might best “fit” within the global culture.

They suggested that sometimes expats on the leadership team need to go a level deeper in their understanding of the local culture. Too often foreign managers chose the safety of retaining their national identity and operating according to stereotypes, however the more successful expats are curious to understand what lies beneath. You are only able to respect a culture (and its people) when there is a deeper level of genuine understanding. It is hazardous to judge people according to stereotypes, and it ensures you will never properly integrate. Finding similarities rather than focusing on differences was a another suggestion, as was laughing about differences to break down barriers.

This 12-month leadership experience exposed many “remote” talents to a global mindset of different people living different realities. Their perspectives were broadened, and when they returned to their local offices, they broadened those of their people. Many of their local employees are keen to experience the corporate culture of the company. In fact, that may be why they joined a foreign company in the first place. If an HR Director has a “local only” outlook, it could prove a recipe for disillusionment. HR is a key bridging role, and sometimes there is a missed opportunity when there is too much loyalty to the local culture.

It might seem a strange suggestion, but a “foreign” HR Director with an open mind and highly developed cultural intelligence is sometimes the most effective solution. Their ability to think both globally and locally will ensure that their people are able to benefit from the blend of both cultures.

HR is the chef in charge of perfecting this blend. In the right hands, the right hybrid culture has an opportunity to emerge.

Kristin Holter is enjoying writing on LinkedIn while looking for the next big HR role. Curious? Read my other LinkedIn articles and get in touch.

Originally published at

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