Beyond your borders: Overcoming cultural differences that so often cause conflict

Beyond your 1

According to Geert Hofstede “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”  Patrick Mazzariol, Vice President International Sales at Synchrony, Inc., USA, explains that an international learning strategy, language skills and embracing new cultures are the keys to overcoming this problem.

The Treaties of Rome which integrated six European countries and established the European Economic Community were signed in 1957. This act leads to the emergence of the European Union. Now, just over a few decades of worldwide economic advancement has led to a tremendous situation in which, globally, we are emerging into an International Economic Community.

The World Bank indicates that the export of goods and services as percentage of World GDP grew from 13% in the beginning of the 70’s to almost 29% in 2008.  At the same time, the skyrocketing increase in the World GDP from 2 to 61 Trillion USD has been driven by more than simply within country economic growth. Inevitably, the powerful trend to make business beyond your borders has emerged.

Export of goods  and services as % of World GDP

Export of goods and services as % of World GDP table – an increase from 13% to 29%…

World GDP. Source World Bank

At the same time, the skyrocketing increase in the World GDP.

SEE ALSO: "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. One of the best sellers of the 1990S

“Good to Great” by Jim Collins.
One of the best sellers of the 1990s

The increasingly interdependent world economy brings a new framework for business leaders to consider the question: How do I foster decisive leadership to achieve a high level of success? While classical in nature, it is now necessary to examine this question through lenses that focus on appreciation of international interdependencies and cultural differences. To do this, the international business leader must develop a globally focused education, master multilingual capabilities and embrace cultural differences.

Competitiveness through international learning

As stated in his book “The Leadership Engine”, Tichy Noel reinforces that learning is a key requirement for developing leadership. We enhance our unique qualities through learning and education. Studying abroad was probably one of the richest experiences of my life. It was a privilege to study for my MBA at Duke, The Fuqua School of Business. It was a unique moment of my life. The globally focused education allowed me to make a deep personal assessment while providing me with an actionable set of global leadership tools. (Not to mention that I met my wife during my MBA, this is awesome).

The global MBA provided me a framework within which I experienced working with people from different parts of the world.  True learning takes place when you invest time and emotional energy to engage with those around you. This fosters a larger point of view and helps one to face reality, make decisions, have the courage to act, all to build a globally focused future.

Speak different languages

My first foreign language was Spanish. Being French, it made sense to speak the language of my neighboring country. I discovered later that English was probably more appropriate for conducting global business. To embrace an international community requires that skill. In addition, when considering the incremental growth of GDP since the 1970’s, China and Japan (second only to the US) achieved a mere 4.9 Trillion USD.

Learning languages helps with culture

Geert Hofstede said: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy.”

What is surprising is the East Asia & Pacific have created more wealth than Euro area since the 70’s. So speaking English, French and Spanish is great, but not enough, because, the most spoken language in the world is Mandarin. We may all need to consider learning this language in the future.

Be open to embracing different cultures

As professor Geert Hofstede said: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” 

Change and conflict management will continue to be the most difficult things for global businesses to control. Living and conducting business in a world of virtualized management, you must rely on building trust and loyalty. Seeking to understand facilitates trust and builds a better team, which is really the recipe for creating value. To do this, you must work toward understanding the local issues, and demonstrate decisiveness and compassion.

The knowledge of culture will offer you a larger degree of leadership. Let me share my vision of some cultural differences. From my experiences, it is important to try to avoid stereotypes and keep in mind that they are not the single determinant of individual behavior.

Differences in culture for business

Click image to zoom.

To conclude, these 3 skills will assist you in building your international legacy. Business organizations worldwide are growing more similar, while the behavior of people within them is maintaining its cultural uniqueness. As such, firms need to create an environment that considers multi-civilization and multi-disciplinary appreciation. However, while culturally unique, people are driven by the similar principles: family, security and job. Hence, it is important to be empathetic and genuine.

For all our differences, as global citizens and business leaders, we are similar in at least one regard, we are all very competitive and like to win every time.  However, we should not forget to maintain our integrity with a focus on sustainable performance, in good times as well as bad… until the next treaty.

Patrick Mazzariol is Vice President International Sales at Synchrony, Inc. based in Washington  D.C., USA.  Synchrony Inc. is a leading Fortune 200 technology company. Patrick has a Master’s degree from ESSEC, France and recently completed the Global Executive MBA at The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University.

He has 16 years of experience in global sales development for engineered products and has worked for Ingersoll Rand, Metabo & 3M. He is fluent in three languages and has developed his expertise in 62 countries, spanning 4 continents.

See also:

Interview with Bertrand Guillotin of the Fuqua School of Management, Duke University

GEM & DUKE mainIt was a great pleasure to welcome Bertrand Guillotin, International Programs Director at the Fuqua School of Management, Duke University to Grenoble EM in November. During his time at the school we were able to make a short video in which Bertrand talked about life at Duke. Having studied and worked in both France and the USA, he was also able to share his insights into and the differences between French and American styles of teaching and learning. Read more…

Building Enduring Success

74879089Many have postulated on the key components of business success. Theories build on approaches ranging from evaluating lessons learned to recognizing opportunities and having a willingness to take measured risks. Clearly such concepts can play an influential role. However, there are three key foundational imperatives for ensuring enduring success. Read more….

Changing symbols of a unified nation

 104_0462The news last week was dominated by the commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York & Washington on September 11th 2001. During such difficult moments people often try unite around their nations. In this context, symbols of the nation become important. However, such symbols will vary from country to country. Read more…

Summertime blues: How much vacation did you really get?

Summertime_bluesIn many countries, it is time to get back to work / school after the summer break. Depending on where you live, this break will have been of varying lengths. Read more….

Cultural Dimensions – How people from different countries and cultures are…different

MarkjOwen’s Blog: “Now – ever since moving to a foreign country, and then starting work for an international company, I have been trying to find a way that would help me understand, and to describe, the differences in the cultures of the people I live with, and work with.”

Socialising: There are Rules?

Anglophonism: “Grice came up with the theory that what we say follows rules. In particular, he came up with a cooperative principle: four maxims that any utterance should follow. The four maxims, together, create the Cooperative Principle: while you’re following the maxims, you’re being cooperative.”

German Intrusions of the English Language!

Worlds Fusion: “‘Shlep’ is one word from the German language that has been adopted into mainstream English. Although this is a more popular term in America than it is in Britain, many in the country still use it to express the arduous task of lugging things around.”

What is your (inter)nationality ?

Modern World: “There is no doubt that many countries are consistently losing their old national identities, and start imitating other countries’ cultures.The gaps have been narrowed so much, so that in some cases it’s hard to tell where people come from.”

The power of a language

Modern World: “I personally see a language as a tool to understand something different, it can be a different culture or values that are reflected in the words and the idioms, different professional background, but in the end , this tool helps us with the most important thing – communicating with people like us.”

How to survive in Russia as a foreign student

Textbooks and Passports: “Go to a university, not a language school, as then you actually make Russian friends and don’t spend all your time with other foreigners, something that can be easily done in St Petersburg where there are so many foreigners.”

The Innovator´s Dilemma Talent Management
Steve Jobs’ favourite book. Any more questions? Wonderful essay that lays out the benefits of international trade. Why are some companies having problems keeping good staff? How do you manage to keep them?

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under Business, Culture, Education, Game Theory, Guest Authors, Higher Education, International studies, Management, Study Abroad, USA

14 responses to “Beyond your borders: Overcoming cultural differences that so often cause conflict

  1. Dwayne Naylor


    Your comments concerning the opportunities in global business are well timed and insightful. During my two week visit to Beijing and Guizhou, China with the World Council of Credit Unions, I learned to appreciate the Chinese formality and ritual during our numerous business meetings. The highest ranking officials in each group were seated at the middle of the table facing each other and business cards were extended to you with two hands while respectfully bowing. As an executive trained in the United States, I was anxious to “get to the point” and talk about the key issues on our agenda. Once our group “let go” of our way of doing business, opened our minds to what we were being taught, we came to have a great deal of respect for Chinese customs and focus on relationship building. Ironically, my culture shock came upon my return to the States during a meeting with a critical vendor. Business cards were tossed across the table, a few comments were made about the weather and after three minutes, these executives we were deep into contract negotiations.
    Your emphasis on learning languages, which allows you to connect on a much more personal level, will be the key skill needed in a globalized world. I gave a speech to 100 managers through an interpreter, which never allowed me to really connect with my audience. The greatest gift we can give our children is ensuring they can speak at least three languages so they can communicate directly with the world. That will be the most effective way to build trust and understanding for effective business relationships.
    Thank you for reminding us the most effective way to build global businesses is to acknowledge executives in every culture have something of value to share. Learning to subdue preconceived notions that there is only one way to conduct business, will create a platform for sustainable partnerships to develop.
    Dwayne Naylor
    Executive Vice President
    Langley Federal Credit Union

  2. Ed Meko


    A very good reminder that we can never afford to stop learning about the world around us. This is especially true when we are visiting and trying to develop new business relationships in new countries. Your wanting to learn in a new country will be noticed by your hosts and they will lean in your direction to help you in your learning. What a great way to start a new business relationship with both parties leaning inward.

    Being able to speak the language of the land you are visiting is the ultimate good. Being able to speak to another person in that person’s native language adds a special magic ingredient that cannot be replaced even if you both speak English. But, being realistic as to language, I long ago came to the realization that I will not be able to speak the native language of all of the lands I seek to visit. So we must work, with some considerable energy, to develop some other special magic to create the spark that might be able to jump across the cultural gap. So learn something about the history or the architecture or the plants or the animals of the new land that you will try to do business in.

    For example, respect for the architecture of the land you visit can bring you closer to your hosts. Let them know that you understand the need for high ceilings or the function of red-tile roofs or the utility of the tax dollars expended in the upkeep of old churches. When you catch a moment in between business comings and goings, go and sit in one of those old churches and listen to the street noise outside and watch the people that come and go and let your host know that you enjoyed the experience and tell them what it revealed to you. Create some magic!

    Architecture is a place for past generations and artisans to speak to us and a lot of it is in plain view and very easy to take in … it is there for the seeing. Let your host know that you have listened to the voices of the ancestors that are speaking to you in the buildings that they have left behind. Create some magic for yourself and your host … they will get great joy out of the observations that you share with them.

    Long deep cultures that have been coming of age for thousands of years as opposed to hundreds of years have a lot of momentum which is tested and very effective … as time rather quickly weeds out cultural traits that do not have their proper place and/or their practical efficacy. Learn how to swim in those very pleasant, strong, cultural currents and you will not only enjoy them but you will also find that they can quickly move you on your way to good business relationships.

    And last but not least we should thank you for the table that you left us with at the end of your article. It is a great and very effective way to structure and capture the knowledge which you pick along the way as you come upon new lands and their peoples. I would suggest that everyone involved in international business go through the exercise of actually filling out a table of their own with their own column and row headings. Then go one step further and force your self to update that table every once and awhile as your knowledge of a foreign culture grows … you will often find that first impressions, no matter how well considered, need to be updated to reflect what should be continuous, never-ending discovery on your part. We are never done with our learning.

  3. Dave Stahlman

    Change and conflict managment with respect for others culture continue to be key for global partnerships. Respect for each other is one of the critical success factors that is not taught in MBA school but is likely the most important thing one can show as a business leader from another culture.

    Thank you for sharing this article with us and reminding us that in the end, we are all people with basic needs for success, no matter how we measure it, to make a more secure life for our family, business, or nation.
    David Stahlman
    Vice President, Marketing
    Doosan Infracore Portable Power

  4. Peter Clough

    August 1, 2011

    Patrick, I just read your interesting article. Thank you for forwarding it to me. I enjoyed your personal approach and the countries/criteria table you prepared.

    As an American living in Europe for nearly 40 years I have gone the opposite direction across “the Big Pond” (Atlantic Ocean). With an MBA gained at one of Europe’s best business schools and international business experience at large, medium & small enterprises in Germany, France, Ireland & Austria, I share your insights and support you.

    Concerning the teaching and learning of foreign languages, it is disheartening to see how the teaching of foreign languages in the American and French schools are on the decline. For example, the private school I attended in Philadelphia has recently dropped German & French courses (“no demand”) in favor of Spanish, Chinese & Latin(!)

    To help the school prepare boys for the challenges in the multicultural business and personal life they will inevitably face after school and college I am looking at ways to encourage the development of intercultural skills and awarenes of what lies beyond American shores. Revival of foreign student exchanges, e.g., with Asia and Europe or Latin America, is one idea I would like to financially underwrite.

    In the final analysis, of course, it will be up to “internationalists” like yourself to act as leaders in promoting cultural respect beyond those national borders.

    Peter Clough
    Annecy, France

  5. All business / MBA education is going online video now…see sites like ; sure, Harvard and the top Business Schools benefit from brand, network etc, but if you’re not going to one of those then these are good alternatives.

  6. Pingback: Cultural Dimensions – How people from different countries and cultures are…different « MarkjOwen's Blog

  7. B. Davis

    Your article is very insightful. Due to globalization, people of many cultures interact each day, thus we need to be more cultural sensitivity to all cultures. As an educator in the realm of higher education and a graduate student I constantly visit this topic to better embrace and understand other cultures.
    Thank you.
    B. Davis

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