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Leadership & Organisations

The Most Productive Ways to Disagree Across Cultures

The Most Productive Ways to Disagree Across Cultures

Should you disagree openly or find private channels for feedback? It depends on the cultural backgrounds of your team.

Li Shen, a young Chinese manager who eagerly accepted a job as a marketing manager for L’Oreal after doing her MBA in Europe found herself working at the company’s Shanghai office. Her excellent command of English and acceptable French gave her confidence when dealing with her European colleagues. She didn’t feel there was a cultural gap between her and her European peers, until she was invited to Paris to present her ideas about a marketing campaign in China.

“I prepared my presentation tirelessly,” she recalls. “I spent all thirteen hours of the plane ride from Shanghai rehearsing each slide so my points would be convincing.”

There were 12 people in the meeting and Shen was the only non-European in the room. Her ideas were prepared and meticulous but she was taken aback by the challenges thrown at her by her French colleagues. They started by questioning why she had chosen to change a specific colour in a print ad. As she was explaining, other members of the group began to challenge her other decisions. Shen felt attacked and humiliated, mostly upset with herself. “They obviously did not feel I was the marketing expert I claimed to be,” she recalled.

When the meeting was over, Shen rushed for the exit, but before she could escape, she had a surprise. Several of the participants who had challenged her came up to congratulate her and tell her how polished and interesting her presentation was. “At that moment, I realised I was more Chinese than I thought,” she said.

Facing up to culture

The reason for Shen’s initial feeling of shock was the concept of mianzi or “face”. In Confucian societies like China, Korea and Japan, maintaining group harmony by saving face for all members is of the utmost importance. As Shen describes it, “In China, protecting another person’s face is more important than stating what you believe is correct.” Group harmony exists when everyone plays their prescribed role and reinforces the roles of others.

In contrast, as you will recall from my earlier blog on persuasion, the French and the Germans are taught from a young age to disagree openly. French students are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis and synthesis, building up one side of the argument, then the other, before coming to a conclusion.

I experienced a similar issue when working with a group of American and German executives from DaimlerChrysler in 2002. When I explained in a session that Americans are generally less direct with negative feedback than Germans, Dirk Firnhaber, one of the Germans, promptly disagreed and went on to cite several personal experiences as counterexamples. A second German colleague also joined in to support Firnhaber.

Afterwards, Ben Campbell, one of the American participants came up to me visibly frustrated. “I don’t get it,” he said. “The Germans signed up for this course. Why do they have to constantly disagree with you?” Ben turned to Dirk. “Is it cultural?” he wondered.

“I’ll think about it,” Dirk replied.

After lunch, Dirk was ready to share his thoughts.

“We have this word in German, Sachlichkeit, which is most closely translated in English as “objectivity.” We can separate someone’s opinions or idea from the person expressing the idea. When I say “I disagree,” I am debating Erin’s position, not disapproving of her.”

This exchange vividly demonstrates why the Germans, along with the French, Dutch and Danish are on the confrontational side of the disagreeing scale. On the other side stand the Chinese, and even more so, the Japanese, Thai and Indonesian.

The strategy for succeeding in these cultures goes back to my earlier post on trust, where I recommended taking the time to build a close and trusting relationship with colleagues or clients from other cultures, which should help to reduce the level of confrontation you experience.

Getting global teams to disagree agreeably

Here are some strategies that can help facilitate constructive disagreement if you lead a global team:

If you’re the boss, consider skipping the meeting. Depending on the cultures you’re dealing with, both your seniority and your age may impact the willingness of others to disagree openly. In Japan for example, disagreeing with someone with white hair or rank is taboo. Even asking another’s point of view can feel confrontational. Advance preparation could help your Japanese counterparts feel more comfortable sharing their opinions openly, giving them time to check with each other and prepare their responses.

Another strategy is to depersonalise disagreement by separating ideas from the people expressing them. Putting ideas on a board anonymously then debating them with the group can facilitate disagreement without risking relationships.

A third strategy is to conduct meetings before the main meeting, something especially important in East Asian cultures. You could also adjust your language, avoiding stronger-sounding opinions of ideas such as “absolutely” or “totally”. In confrontation-avoiding cultures, people are more likely to use words like “sort of” or “partially”.

Play Devil’s advocate

On the other hand, if you’re working with a culture more confrontational than your own, be careful about using stronger words than are natural to you. I would not recommend telling your French client “you are totally wrong”. Disagreement is expressed more in the German or French cultures but it is easy to overshoot.

And not all Western cultures are the same. Compared to China, or even more so Thailand, Americans are confrontational. However in comparison with the French, the Americans avoid confrontation putting a stronger value on harmony and equilibrium. Americans have developed a highly complex, multi-ethnic citizenry characterised by tolerant coexistence. “United we stand, divided we fall” is the basis for many social interactions in the United States.

My French husband Eric who lived for many years in the U.S. and the U.K. inadvertently created some awkward scenes in American meetings with his straightforward, French-style disagreements, so he devised a solution:

“Before expressing disagreement, I now always explain, ‘Let me play devil’s advocate so we can explore both sides. Most groups seem happy to do this as long as I am clear about what I am doing and why,” he says.

Sometimes, just a few words of explanation framing your behaviour can make all the difference in how your actions are perceived.

Erin Meyer is an Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD where she is also the Programme Director of Managing Global Virtual Teams and Management Skills for International Business two of INSEAD's executive development programmes. She is also the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. You can follow Erin on Twitter @ErinMeyerINSEAD

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Anonymous User

05/01/2016, 04.32 am

Another great article Erin. A must-read for anyone leading or consulting across cultures.
When I first arrived in North America 25 years ago, I discovered that I had to tune down my controversial French side - and of course I learnt it the hard way ;-). Then, when working in Saudi Arabia, I had to bring it down a big notch again.

Keep up the good research and articles! Merci.
Edmond, from ORCHANGO in English-speaking Canada.


Didier Baudois

23/04/2015, 11.45 pm

Hello !
You explain how people from different cultures react but you don't explain the reason why.

I consider very important to explain why things happen because, when people understand how things work, they can better create their own ways to deal with the facts.

I will share with you my opinion:
The first text in French compares French, German and English social contexts with incursions in Chinese cultural context.

The second text, also in French, applies the findings of the first text to the specific case of the Lufthansa in relation with the GermanWings crash.

For English language readers, put the links in your bookmark list, I will soon start the English translation.

Caveat: you will read a social study. Most of the time, the differences in the examined behaviors are barely distinguishable, this is the reason why I had to raise the contrast to its maximum.
And don't forget life is like a Rubik's Cube, it has many faces, each of a different color. Therefore, if the face I describe is of a different colour as you're accustomed to see your life, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong, it's just that I have another point of view...


Didier from the Western part of Switzerland


Travel Insurance

23/04/2015, 08.30 pm

Great article, I can't agree anymore. As working in one US company longer, the same feeling become stronger with the description in this article.


Anonymous User

15/04/2015, 04.31 pm

Working in a cross-cultural team, I agree with Erin's views. The tips on discussing options on a No - Names basis & Playing the Devil's Advocate are useful.


Anonymous User

09/04/2015, 05.33 pm

Great article, I can't agree anymore. As working in one US company longer, the same feeling become stronger with the description in this article.


Anonymous User

06/04/2015, 10.43 pm

excellent article and spot on IMO


Anonymous User

09/04/2015, 08.31 pm

Erin's book, "Culture Map" is a very valuable resource. Her articles are a great addition.

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