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Championing Culture as Global Citizens

By Kira Rubiano

GlobalCulture_InsideEditor’s Note: The following article is taken from a presentation the author gave during a keynote address at Congress Xstream this year.

What we as a global community have been living through this year truly shows how connected we are as citizens of the world. In so many ways, it not only highlights the immense interconnectedness but also the strength and richness of a world united.

Now, more than ever, our ability to work together across borders and boundaries is critical, particularly in the payroll industry. The more we are able to understand each other, value our differences, and try to watch and listen more, the better equipped we are to drive success in our personal and professional lives.

In February of 2020—before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic—I was flying from Madrid back home to Chicago. It was one of those massive planes that carries over 250 passengers. The plane was packed to the brim.

This was great for me because I am a people-watching person. What starts running through my mind as I see passengers board are a series of questions like, “What’s their story?” and “Where are they flying from and where are they going?” and “What do they do for a living?”

On my last few flights, I have sat next to passengers who had a story—and a journey. For example:

  • A Dutch girl coming home from visiting her long-distance boyfriend who was attending college in Ohio. She was one of the most fearless 17-year-olds I have ever come across.
  • A Swedish couple visiting their daughter studying abroad in Kentucky and looking to explore a bit of the United States, including the Bourbon Trail.
  • An Italian businessman and passionate musician in search of a unique guitar in Nashville.
  • A Chicago local who was looking to relive his days from studying abroad in Spain.
  • A Turkish gentleman coming back from Naples after attending a friend’s funeral.

All these passengers, just like me, just like you, have a unique story and most of all a unique perspective that is shaped by culture.

My Culture Story

Culture is an umbrella term that encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Now, you don’t have to be on a transatlantic flight to experience the impact that culture has on our daily and professional lives. We feel and see its impacts around us every day. For instance, you may have a:

  • Colleague who is always way too direct during meetings
  • Friend who is habitually late to everything
  • Boss who has an open-door policy
  • Client who never communicates clearly

Psychology professor Art Markman, Ph.D., once said, “A primary purpose of culture is to provide you with an orientation for understanding and navigating the world. … The assumptions you make about the world based on your culture form your ability to evaluate everything you encounter.”

As I sat next to these passengers, I learned a lot about them, and they learned a lot about me. So, now I wonder, what is my “culture story?”

I am an immigrant, born in Belarus. Since junior high school, I was fascinated with anything “international” and global. I knew from a very early age that whatever I did would involve working with people around the world, and therefore I pursued a degree in International Studies and Law. I studied abroad in Russia and Italy.

Upon graduation, I persuaded my then-boyfriend, a Colombian-American, to marry me while at the same time, by pure fate, I landed a job at a global payroll company. Now, I didn’t study payroll in college. It’s not something your college advisor ever tells you about. But I knew that I could learn the subject and that it would give me the opportunity to do what I love: work with people around the world.

From day one I was exposed to people from around the world—from Argentina to Japan. I had to communicate with local payroll companies to oversee my client’s payroll processing in more than120 countries. My own colleagues came from all over the world. Even in my office, there were more than 20 nationalities represented. After four years of working with clients, I moved to Partner Relationship Management, where my responsibility was to manage relationships with more than 70 local payroll providers throughout Europe and Asia Pacific. I did so for six years, traveling to different parts of the world.

I then worked at a large accounting firm for its International Services Division coordinating global initiatives across their global network. For several years I headed up the International Payroll Department and U.S. operations for a global business process outsourcing (BPO) firm that operates across Latin America and Europe. Today, I continue my passion as Customer Engagement Director for the innovative global payroll company Immedis.

It doesn’t matter if I am at my desk or at the dinner table with my family, culture has and continues to play a vital part in my interactions with my colleagues, clients, family, friends, and even passengers on a plane. It is all around us as everyone is shaped by their familial roots, where they come from, and what they do day to day. It is at the core of who we are and how we perceive the world.

How Culture Shapes Perceptions

So, how does culture shape how we perceive the world? How are we able to connect and communicate with others of a different culture to ensure collaboration, trust, and success regardless if they are thousands miles away? Can we do the same if they are sitting at the next cubicle, or talking to us during a virtual conference call?

Four words that will help you understand how important communication is, no matter where you are in the world, are trust, feedback, timing, and appreciation. Let’s look at each of these closely.

Trust is at the core of how we interact with others. We either trust someone or we don’t.

Many cultures, particularly those of Latin America and Western Europe, are extremely trust-based cultures. A long coffee break or a lunch meeting is vital to ensuring that both parties feel comfortable that a task, project, or goal can be achieved. A 15-minute conversation before getting to the meat of the matter is common. Getting to know each other beyond a business interaction is a must.

I learned very early on that the first thing I must do when interacting with my colleagues, partners, and clients is to build trust. I let them get to know me and get to know them so that we bridge the trust gap. At my former employer, I was working with an Italian service provider that was servicing a client of mine and a situation came up that necessitated someone urgently go to Milan. I reached out to my main contact, who was based in Rome, asking if he would be willing to get on a plane that day and fly to Milan. His response stuck with me. He said, “If you ask me to do it, I will get on that plane.”

His response was driven by the fact that he trusted me, and I trusted him. We had built a relationship over time, and it was critical to ensuring the success of this task. Now, if there had been a lack of trust, my request might have been a challenge. For example, in a past position, I was faced with a situation where a former colleague of mine exhibited clear signs of distrust with a partner in Europe. The Director of the European company called me and stated, “If you don’t trust us, I don’t want to work with you.” The relationship was more important than the business itself in that instance.

The phrase, “This is just a business interaction” can no longer be the binding factor in a business relationship. The relationship itself is a critical component. Taking a few minutes before any interaction to get to know the person next to you, across the phone, or across the screen, will ensure that you are on your way to building trust.

Feedback is  the way that we deliver negative feedback or disagree with someone and is heavily influenced by culture. Germans, Dutch, French, and Russians are very direct in how they deliver negative feedback. Hearing you are “doing bad” at your job without any positive affirmation or hearing “you are wrong” is completely acceptable and not to be taken personally. It is a way of clearly communicating where one stands. In many cultures, particularly in Asia and the United States, we are indirect and wrap negative feedback with multiple positives.

While at my former employer, I had to fly to Amsterdam to discuss service level issues with a Dutch service provider. I was fully prepared with all of the points for improvement. However, of course, as an American, I first spoke to the things that were going well and were positive. Then, I communicated my concerns in other areas.

During the meeting, the service provider acknowledged what I was saying but did not seem as concerned as I wanted them to be about some of the negative feedback I had given them. I came to find out that the service provider thought his company was performing well since I gave him a lot of positive feedback. In this particular instance, I did not have clear knowledge of how he interpreted my feedback and, therefore, by no fault of his own, did not truly understand what I was trying to convey.

It is important to know that you should not start giving positive feedback to an individual from a culture that is accustomed to direct negative feedback. You should keep it in mind as you are trying to convey a message to a colleague or a supplier and adjust your messaging appropriately. Be aware of how your own culture shapes the way that you communicate feedback and how the person on the other end may interpret it.

We are all painfully handcuffed to the notion of time. Adherence to schedules and agendas varies from one part of the world to the next. In the United States, people show up to a meeting on the dot or a few minutes beforehand and stick to the agenda sent out before the meeting. Countries like Spain, Brazil, Mexico, and Portugal, however, usually start a meeting 10-15 minutes late. Adherence to the agenda is not a must.

Honestly, understanding the subtle assumptions about time that control behaviors and expectations in various cultures has been the most challenging for me. I am an extremely punctual person and therefore found myself getting frustrated every time my former colleagues from Latin America and Spain would call in late to a meeting or start the meeting 15 minutes late.

The importance of relationships also seems to correlate with timing and scheduling. In cultures where relationships are a priority, you will put them before the clock.

Author Erin Meyer wrote in her book, “The Culture Map,“ something that stuck with me. A meeting is like waiting in a line. In cultures where adherence to time and agenda are strict and linear, like in Sweden, Germany, or the United States, there is an assumption that a meeting should look like a line. An agenda is set out ahead of time, in the form of a list, explaining what the meeting will be about, who will be there, and what subjects will be covered and in what order. If someone should attempt to “hijack” the meeting by bringing up some topic not found on the agenda, they will probably be deterred from continuing the discussion on that new topic. What’s more, in such cultures, any behavior that distracts from the predefined task at hand is not welcome.

However, in flexible time cultures, such as in South America or Africa, an agenda will probably be circulated prior, but there is no expectation that the meeting will progress in a linear manner. A discussion may branch off in a new direction. Interruptions, agenda changes, and shifts in direction are natural.

The key for me has been and continues to be what I have deemed as “meeting halfway” with my close colleagues and contacts who come from cultures with a flexible outlook on timing. I have educated them on the expectation based on my cultural background and have stated that I recognize their expectation and asked if we can meet halfway. However, if I am in a setting where a majority of the attendees are of a flexible timing culture, I will adjust my frame of mind and go with the flow.

So, the next time you find yourself as the person who is always first to show up or call or the person who is always late, keep in mind that culture plays a very large role in why certain meetings with certain cultures play out the way they do.

As you build awareness of the impact cultures has on our day-to-day professional and personal lives, you will be better able to act as a cultural bridge. No matter who you are working with or sitting next to on an airplane, it is important to begin any relationship with the desire to understand what is unique and specific to that individual. We must appreciate our differences and see them as strengths, not weaknesses.

The way we work and interact today is likely to change due to the current global situation. However, what will continue to be the same is the interaction we have with people from all parts of the world, with rich cultural backgrounds, near and far.

We may not be sitting on an airplane on a transatlantic flight for a while. However, just across the phone, across the screen, and across the street, we see how truly culturally rich we are in this world. So let’s appreciate it, nurture it, and rely on its strength to help us come out of this crisis stronger, brighter, and even more resilient.

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Kira Rubiano is Customer Engagement Director, U.S., at Immedis as well as a member of the Global Payroll Management Institute’s (GPMI) Global Editorial Advisory Board and the recipient of the GPMI Global Vision Award in 2019.