Laden with accessible language, practical advice, and relatable stories, Erin Meyer’s Culture Map is a practical and insightful guidebook about leading and managing across cultures. The book is written from a Western perspective and with an effort toward humility in that regard. Culture Map is an accessible book, written for the popular audience.
Meyer earns credibility with the reader almost immediately in two important ways: 1. She displays self-reflection. This book clearly arises out of our own experience and her personal inner negative feedback of which she was able to develop awareness. There is a sense of urgency and awareness that Meyer has experienced in her own cross-cultural business relationships. This became clear to her when she learned the values behind the behavior of the other person. For example, when she learned that Chen was taught to value the practice of listening and attentiveness, she was able to remove her lens of judgment to the common stereotypical judgment: “Asians don’t participate in meetings.” 2. Perhaps more unique is her display of awareness of cross-cultural complexity beyond the most general and widely understood ways. For example, Meyer’s illustration of the managerial relationship between Webber and Dulac displays nuance and complex understanding of the French-American relationship, along with unique insight. It became apparent that the stereotype of Americans being blunt does not apply when the American is a supervisor and has to give negative feedback. In this context, the American is not blunt, but measured, careful and “nice.” Meyer immediately tells the reader that in the pages ahead, she is going to challenge stereotypes while putting them in their proper places.
Meyer insists that people working across cultures—which is increasingly moving toward everyone—need not only to be open and sensitive to differences and stereotypes but actually to be informed about the intricacies of how dominant cultures view one another and how the differences play out when the conditions of the relationship change. Just as Charles Taylor suggested that the conditions of the West have changed, out of which faith arises in a new way, when a French person is supervised by an American, now the conditions of the relationship have changed. They are not simply passersby at a restaurant or winery or coffee shop, now there is a power dynamic to throw into the mix, whereby the cultural differences play out in ways that are not as readily apparent.
Meyer’s aim is to inform and instruct. In this way, Culture Map is a practical guidebook that is helpful for leaders, particularly Western leaders, to challenge our assumptions and to become more informed. The intent is that becoming informed will lead to fewer culture clashes in business relationships, along with more fruitful and effective production. Imagine the innovation that could be possible when people of different cultures come together and truly understand one another and the values that lie behind the behaviors, and to develop a synergy out of which something new can arise. In some ways, this sounds like Pentecost to the Christian leader.
Meyer intends to inform the reader by suggesting “eight scales” (each one representing a chapter of the book) or areas in which managers and leaders would be served well to become aware:
- Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
- Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
- Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
- Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
- Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
- Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
- Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
- Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time
Of particular interest is Chapter Six: The Head or the Heart. This “scale” focuses on the dynamics of trust, and particularly the difference between relationship-oriented management versus task-oriented management. The common assumption would be that “efficient” cultures, like China and the West, would lean toward being task-oriented, while global south cultures like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, would be relationship-oriented. But this would be too simplistic. Meyer’s story of the Americans arriving in Brazil and spending large amounts of time eating together while the Americans checked their watches, is a familiar story for most today. But the wisdom of the Chinese to develop Guanxi with the Americans—deep, trusting relationship, is the aim of this chapter.
Meyer describes cognitive trust and affective trust, and the need for both in business relationships. Every pastor knows this is her first task when beginning a new ministry at a church. When I first began at John Knox Presbyterian, we spent the first six months setting up small group home visits, where my wife and I went to 12 homes with 10-20 people attending from the church, and we sat in a circle and asked them two questions: “What do you love about this church and what is your big dream for the church?” and we listened and shared and prayed. This simple “program” was so surprising to them because no pastor had ever gone to their space to ask them about their vision for the church. Trust was built immediately. Don’t give me the credit, though. I learned this practice from an old retired interim pastor who is a master at building trust almost immediately.
Cognitive trust is the trust of the head. I hired a program director and invited him to join me on this nonprofit venture in Santa Barbara, first because I had the trust in him to do the job. This trust was built over the past five years of working together at the church. I know what he can do and I can trust that he can perform tasks. On the other hand, affective trust was lacking more than I realized. In a new environment and closer space, it is becoming more apparent that affective trust is critical for synergy and innovation. When there is deep affective trust, there is inner freedom from anxiety and fear, that allows the colleagues to relax. In a relaxed state, new ideas can form as the imagination is free to be active. This is critical for us because we are seeking to do social entrepreneurship in a particular community, and our synergy is critical for this. Part of the challenge that my colleague and I are facing has to do with the separation of work and home life that we are accustomed to in our culture. We are learning how to integrate through shared experiences and vulnerability, and this building of affective trust is needed. Working across cultures, Meyer would suggest that it is helpful to know that some cultures, like the Chinese, are more naturally oriented toward practices that build affective trust; whereas other cultures, like the American culture, are more naturally inclined to separate personal from professional behaviors and even relationships. One culture is oriented toward integration, while another is oriented toward compartmentalization.
The challenge, then, for the Christian leader, is to think “Christianly” about this. Are there particular behaviors, whether or not they come naturally to a particular culture, that move us toward greater human flourishing? If so, how do my cultural assumptions and behaviors need to be challenged, and which ones need to be practiced even more and offered for others. The point is not that our behaviors are all morally neutral in their distinctions. The point is that the best of every culture can be shared and offered while the worst can be challenged and corrected. In so doing, we foster a greater human flourishing in and for the name and sake of Jesus Christ.
Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map (INTL ED) (p. 16). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.