Past and Future – Building Strategies Across Cultures


One of the least visible sources of cultural gaps among diverse partners and colleagues is differences in thinking style preferences. While interaction style and sense of self gaps often appear quickly during business relationships, thinking style gaps usually appear more subtly. Thus, people might not be able to spot them as gaps, and fail to address them before they become problematic.

Take this scenario as an example:

Marcus was a US-based global sales director. Recent downturns in sales in Latin America had become a concern for his company. His boss asked Marcus to meet with top-level executives from Costa Rica and Colombia in the regional headquarters. 

During his first morning of meetings, Marcus outlined the latest strategies that the top US business schools were teaching and that might help boost sales in their markets. The executives responded politely and treated Marcus cordially. They invited him for lunch, but Marcus declined so he could go over some charts ahead of the afternoon’s talks. After the afternoon meetings wrapped up, Marcus began to realize that he was not getting the buy-in for change from the Latin American executives.

Marcus was frustrated and confused. He wrote an email to his boss speculating that his Latin American colleagues were unconcerned with the slump in sales, or that, in the worst-case scenario, they held a strong bias against anything US-American.

A few hours later, Marcus received an email from his boss explaining that what Marcus was experiencing was a gap between a present and a past orientation to time. His Latin American counterparts, in this case, would have preferred to fine-tune what had worked for them in the past, rather than try something new. Marcus’ boss also noted that US businesses tend to not focus on the relationship building required to conduct business effectively in Latin America. 

Marcus thought about what he had just learned. He went into his meetings the next day with a plan to ask his colleagues if they wanted to present examples of past successes that they could use to build their strategy. He also decided to invite them for breakfast first thing in the morning in order to better establish their relationship, which would help the talks go smoother.

Learning that his problem lay in cultural gaps helped Marcus rescue his meetings. The likelihood of him using cultural competence in further meetings also became higher. 

As with Marcus’ case, by spotting cultural gaps and working around them, partners can avoid misunderstandings and frustrations, and move on to doing business efficiently and effectively.