What U.S. Execs Can Learn About Business Culture from Other Countries

American business culture can learn a lot from the norms and traditions from other countries. Here are three countries whose business culture norms are worth considering.

Business culture in the United States is shaped by a number of different factors, often conforming around a series of familiar stereotypes. Given our country’s hard-working, capitalist roots, it’s no surprise that business culture in the U.S. is often perceived as a grueling, winner-take-all arena, led by hard-charging, highly competitive leaders.

While the characteristics of business culture in the U.S. are pervasive in some respects, they’re not representative of the norms developed by businesses born in other countries around the world. What can U.S. businesses learn from other countries’ business cultures?

This article will highlight business culture norms from three countries — Thailand, Denmark and Nigeria — and examine the extent to which they are applicable to U.S.-based firms.

Thailand’s Focus on Collectivism

Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand has never been ensnarled in a conflict involving Western intervention. This is one reason why its culture is notably different than other Asian nations — and why its workplace culture is as well.

Michael Chavez, who has done business in Asia for a decade, began working with a major Thai client in 2011. As the CEO of Duke Corporate Education, a global provider of executive education, Chavez noticed firsthand the distinctive culture differences between the American and Thai business cultures.

One major difference in business culture is its focus on collectivism, which he said is at a different end of the spectrum from the American business ideal of individualism. Although Chavez said collectivism has some downsides, it also has many perks, like enhanced collaboration among workers.

For instance, the more individualistic American may not be as willing to ask for help from others. In the U.S., workers have the tendency to think they need to persevere on their own when challenges arise. “That [attitude] I think will be more and more questioned as we move forward,” Chavez said. Collective environments and collaborative thinking are the best ways to solve problems as they grow larger and more complicated. “We are getting to problems that can’t be fixed by heroes or geniuses, but only by collectives,” Chavez said.

There are downsides to collectivism. Getting individuals to contribute to a conversation may be challenging. Also, some people may be nervous to make a different suggestion at the risk of being embarrassed. Chavez said it can slow things down and stagnate innovation if an individual isn’t willing to step up and share their ideas more openly.

That being said, collectivism does allow for more effective collaboration, Chavez said. Even though the idea of individual contributors isn’t as widespread in Thailand, there is a collectivist way to develop conversation in a room and solve problems collaboratively.

“There’s something about this collectivism that I think we’re going to have to learn from in Western cultures,” Chavez said. “I don’t know if we’re going to adopt it the same way — nor should we — but there are aspects of it that would be very helpful.”

Another aspect of Thai business culture is that it’s inherently purposeful. Individual employees are concerned about the well-being of the collective rather than their own individual achievements, and their primary, long-term focus is to leave a legacy for their company and their country, Chavez said.

In a time where organizational culture, vision and purpose has become more front and center for American businesses, Thais already have a long history of those aspects incorporated in their business cultures. “They have this built-in advantage,” Chavez said.

Finally, Chavez said Thailand has a very high-context culture. A high-context culture is more flexible and accommodating to the circumstances and allows someone making a decision to look at a situation more individually, Chavez said. America’s culture of particularism, or more linear thinking, is about things being done a certain, specific way and doesn’t take ambiguity into account.

Such linear thinking may be efficient in some ways, but it doesn’t work well when dealing with huge, complex, global problems, Chavez said.

Like with collectivism, Chavez said, “I don’t think the way we absorb these concepts in the West will look anything like a Thai company. But we’re going to have to figure out how to absorb these highly-contextualized ways of working and principles-based ways of leading.”

Denmark’s Work-Life Boundaries 

Denmark is another country that operates differently than America from a business culture perspective. It’s not the country people often think of when they think of economic powerhouses, but it’s a very economically strong country, according to Ken Siegel, president of The Impact Group, a Los Angeles-based group of business management psychologists. Working in Denmark the past five years has allowed Siegel to compare the differences between Danish and American business cultures.

Denmark is famous for a few resources: wind, water and herring. “What they’ve done is taken those kinds of resources and turned themselves into a country where they’re not in a lot of industries, but the industries they’re in, they dominate,” Siegel said. “And they dominate them because they build in a cultural level of pride and excellence and social connectivity that’s really unmatched in a lot of other countries.”

The same idea of pride and social connectivity is something that permeates through the Danish workplace. The domination of companies in certain industries — for example, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping container company, and Vestas, the leader in wind energy — is in part due to the injection of the Danish cultural norm system into these businesses, Siegel said.

There is also a downside to this laser-focused pride and loyalty. It can breed a sense of “stuckedness,” Siegel said, and there may be not enough external new blood to make different, innovative suggestions.

Such pride bleeds into social interactions. “The level of commitment people have to their company is like the level of commitment they have to their families,” Siegel said. He gave the example of a friend talking about layoffs at a company. “I have to let my friends and colleagues know that we’re not going to be together anymore,” she said, which is more of a familiar approach to layoffs than a formal approach that may be favored by American companies.

Social connectivity has a few valuable benefits to companies. For starters, people tend to stay at companies longer. “In America, people rent companies. Not in Denmark,” Siegel said. People rely more on face-to-face communication than electronic communication. People eat lunch together, and the American construct of eating at one’s desk is uncommon. “Americans view that as an indication of dedication,” Siegel said. “The Danes see it as a measure of neurotic addiction.”

Danish workers tend to have a healthier sense of work-life balance than Americans. “When they’re at work, the intensity of what they do is high and their level of commitment, focus and performance is high, but they also seem to be able to leave that behind,” Siegel said.

Many aspects of Danish culture might not be as attractive to an uncompromising capitalist. For instance, many Danish companies operate like an extended family. They’re consensus-based where everyone gets a vote, which can make decision-making slow, Siegel said. Likewise, Danish firms tend to value a more constant and reliable way forward rather than a risky and uncertain but potentially innovative one. American companies with humanist values can take this Danish ideal that everyone has value in the decision-making process into consideration.

Nigeria’s Religious Accommodations 

In Nigeria, most corporations exist in a handful of major cities, such as Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, Port Harcourt and Ibadan. Employees in the African country will migrate from the country to the city to get these jobs, at which they receive a number of allowances or accommodations and generally stay for a long time, according to Ahmed S. Mohammed, director of talent acquisition at Dartmouth College. Mohammed, son of a diplomat, was born in Togo and has lived all over the world and in many African countries including Nigeria. Although he currently works at Dartmouth, he still maintains contact with friends and colleagues in Nigeria. He also is a board member for a nonprofit called Leadership Initiatives, which does a lot of work in the Northern part of Nigeria.

Nigerian businesses are also very keen on religious accommodations, Mohammed said. People in the country are generally more focused on their religious and spiritual lives. Christianity and Islam are the two major religions in the country and in the workplace; accommodations for those religions at work depend on the owners of the organization as well as the company’s location. In an organization with more workers who practice Islam, for example, employees are afforded time off for prayer five times a day.

Workers in the country also rely heavily on their employers for financial support beyond a salary and basic benefits. It’s not uncommon, Mohammed said, for employers in the country to provided employees with a car or housing allowance.

The housing allowance is something very different from American culture, though some companies do help relocating workers with expenses and temporary housing. In Nigeria, even in a lower-rung professional role, a job will come with a housing allowance that may cover up to all of the employee’s housing expenses for the year, Mohammed said. Nigerians appreciate these allowances, which help them with housing, transportation and even school for their children.

One major difference between American and Nigerian business culture is the importance of social support. “In many cases, people will consider [this] more important than financial support in the workplace,” Mohammed said. For instance, if an employee has a major family event like a wedding, many people from work will attend. Or if an employee is experiencing financial difficulties, co-workers might support them by lending them money. The organization itself might have a program that allows someone to borrow money through a corporate-sponsored credit union, although this formal practice is not as common as the informal practice of co-workers providing direct financial assistance to each other.

“I think that practice helps to solidify a commitment and loyalty within groups of the workplace,” Mohammed said, adding that people tend to stay a long time when they get a job.

AndieBurjek is Talent Economy‘s Contributing Editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io. This story originally appeared as part of the cover package of Talent Economy‘s Summer 2017 quarterly journal. Click here to view the complete digital edition of the issue.