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The Culture Map

Updated: May 3, 2023

This blog is part of our new series on intelligences at work. One way to grow your cultural intelligence is to learn more about cultures. You can find more intelligence posts here.


Why does culture matter?

Culture defines what's normal to us. What good looks like, what success looks like, what's valued, what's discouraged.

We each belong to multiple cultures - some are temporary, and others are lifelong. Every team, every organisation, every region, every country - in fact, every group in general has a culture.

Cultural intelligence (CQ) starts with a willingness to learn about, and be open to, different cultures. Here, let's focus on how the cultures we were raised in might show up at work.

Scenario: How is culture seen at work?

Let's take this scenario to why cultural intelligence matters:

Imagine someone is uncomfortable during a meeting. Whose job is it to let the group know that not everyone is comfortable? Some cultures would squarely place the onus on the person who is uncomfortable to let others know. Say what you need to say!

Americans, me included, would consider this normal. As my dad used to tell me: Stick up for yourself - someone's gotta look out for #1. (You, obviously, are always #1 😅)

Other people looking at the situation, might point out that the person is communicating their uncomfortability in many ways: change in body language, squirming in seat, avoiding eye contact, going quiet, rolling their eyes, etc. They might be spewing their disagreement all over the room - without saying a word. In some cultures, the onus is on everyone in the meeting to make sure there isn't any silent discomfort.

Neither one of these approaches is right or wrong - but they are very different. And these different approaches give rise to very different skillsets.

After all, these cultural values help define what good looks like - what most people want to be seen as good.

In the first scenario, people raised a culture of say-what-you-need-to-say-as-clearly-and-confidently-as-possible, learn to advocate for themselves and articulate their feelings, ideas and positions. Those raised in the collective-responsibility culture have sharpened their social intelligence being able to read the room, focus on others and connect people's emotions with their behaviours.

Without cultural intelligence we might not recognise, or know how to react, adapt and manage, cultural differences. This is just one example - you probably have dozens more.

So let's think about some of the scales that help define how cultures show up at work.

How can you view different cultures?

You know me - I love a good model. And I really connected with how Erin Meyer breaks down cultures in her book The Culture Map. It's packed with thought provoking stories, research and connections. Wish I would've read this book in 2014 when moved to NZ!

She developed or collated eight scales that help define how different national cultures show up differently at work. She gives theories on how these cultural differences came to be historically and provides a range of workplace examples for each of the 8 scales.

She places 23 countries across the eight scales.

She notes that your culture affects the way you:

  • communicate

  • evaluate

  • persuade

  • lead

  • decide

  • trust

  • disagree

  • schedule

Here's the TL;DR (too long; didn't read) elevator pitch of each scale.

(Want more details as to how these might show up in your team or with partners and customers? Get in touch!)

1. Communication: Low vs High context Refers to the level of explicitness and directness in communication. The scenario above was an example of different communication approaches. Low context communicators communicate as literally and explicitly as possible. The speaker is accountable for making sure the listener understands what they're saying. High context cultures are the opposite. In high context cultures, messages are often conveyed implicitly, requiring the listener to read between the lines. Good communication is subtle, layered, and may depend on copious subtext, with responsibility for transmission of the message shared between the one sending the message and the one receiving it. (p.31)

2. Evaluation: Direct vs Indirect negative feedback

This scale reflects the way cultures give and receive feedback. Cultures that score high on this scale tend to be more critical and frank in their feedback, while those that score low prefer to focus on positive feedback and avoid criticism. You can imagine the issues and misunderstandings this leads to at work. The 'shit sandwich' way of giving feedback (something good - then the criticism or true reason for the discussion - then something good) came from indirect negative feedback cultures. Direct negative Drives some people nuts!

3. Persuasion: Principles-first vs Application-first

This describes the way cultures use arguments to convince others.

Applications first cultures are trained to begin with facts, statements or opinions and later add concepts to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary. The preference is to begin a message or report with an executive summary or bullet points. Discussions at work are concrete and practical. Principles-first persuasion cultures have been trained to first develop the theory or complete concept before presenting a fact, statement or opinion. The preference is to begin a message or report by building up a theoretical argument before moving onto the conclusion. (p.96)

4. Leadership: Egalitarian or hierarchical

This refers to the way cultures view and exercise authority. Cultures that fall on the hierarchical side prefer top-down decision making and see the best boss as a strong director who leads from the front. Status is important. Communication often follows set hierarchical lines.

NZ is on the other side of the scale - it has some of the shortest power distances in the world. It's a very casual, non-hierarchical, more consensus-driven culture as a whole.

Egalitarian leadership cultures It's ok to disagree with the boss openly, even in front of others. People are likely to move to action without explicitly getting permission. There's less of a focus on matching hierarchical levels in external meetings. It's okay to email or call people several levels below or above you. There's no particular seating or speaking order in client and partner meetings.

That sounds very much like my experiences in New Zealand. In some work cultures, respecting leaders looks very different - and this egalitarian approach can be misinterpreted as rude.

5. Deciding: Consensual vs Top-down approach

This one is pretty straight forward. Are decisions made at the top and directed down or are they made as a collective?

Consensual decision-making is characterized by a collaborative and inclusive approach. All parties are involved in the decision-making process, and decisions are made based on consensus or majority. Cultures that score high on this scale tend to value input from all team members, and decisions are made collectively after thorough discussion and debate.

This approach can take longer to make decisions, but it often leads to a greater sense of ownership and commitment to the decision by all team members. Sound familiar?

6. Trust: Task-based vs relationship-based

This reflects the degree of trust that exists within a culture. In task-based cultures trust is built through business related activities. Work relationships are built and dropped easily, based on the practicality of the situation. Task based cultures are more sceptical and value formal contracts and legal agreements.

On the other side relationship-based cultures, you guessed it - focus on building connections. Trust is built through food, laughter and lots of non-work-related discussions. It takes time. Trust at work comes when someone feels they have truly met and understood who you are and what you value.

🍑🥥Peach cultures vs coconut cultures 🍑🥥

🍑🍑 In peach cultures like the United States or Brazil, to name a couple, people tend to be friendly (soft) with others they have just met. They smile frequently at strangers, move quickly to first-name usage, share information about themselves, and ask personal questions of those they hardly know. But after a little friendly interaction with a peach person, you may suddenly get to the hard shell of the pit where the peach protects his real self. In these cultures, friendliness does not equal friendship.

🥥🥥 In coconut cultures such as [Polish, French, German or Russian], people are more closed (like the tough shell of a coconut) with those they don't have friendships with. They rarely smile at strangers, ask casual acquaintances personal questions, or offer personal information to those they don't know intimately. It takes a while to get through the initial hard shell, but as you do, people will become gradually warmer and friendlier. While relationships are built up slowly, they tend to last longer. (pgs 198-199)

7. Disagreeing: confrontational vs avoids confrontation

Confrontational shouldn't be confused with rude or argumentative here. In cultures that are more confrontation, disagreement and debate is seen as positive for the work and the team. Open confrontation is seen as appropriate and doesn't negatively impact the relationship.

In the book a French woman explained that students in the French school system are taught to disagree openly...French businesspeople intuitively view conflict and dissonance as bringing hidden contradictions to light and stimulating fresh thinking. We make our points passionately. We like to disagree openly. With confrontation, you reach excellence, you have more creativity, and you eliminate risk. (p.200)

No wonder they're able to confront the issue, not the person. In more confrontational cultures, it seems quite natural to attack someone's opinion without attacking that person. In avoid-confrontation societies, these two things are interconnected. Ah - that explains politics in the US.

8. Scheduling: Flexible vs linear time

How late is late?

This scale describes the way cultures view and use time. Cultures that score high on this scale tend to be more punctual and adhere to strict schedules, while those that score low prioritize flexibility and adaptability.

Linear-time cultures view projects and work time in a sequential fashion, completing one task before beginning the next. The focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule. Emphasis is on promptness and good organisation over flexibility.

Flexible-time cultures are exactly that: flexible. They approach time in a more fluid manner, changing tasks as opportunities arise. Many things are dealt with at once and interruptions accepted. The focus is on adaptability, and flexibility is valued over organisation. Again - different approaches have different definitions of rude.

How does knowing all this help your cultural intelligence?

Often tensions at work come from differences in approach and expectations. These differences can lead to misunderstandings or uncertainty. Building awareness about where different behaviours comes from is an amazing place to start.

For all of these things - it's important to remember that no approach is 'better' than the other. They are valued in different context, and they drive strong ideas of what is normal, good and not so good. That's why we need to talk about it!

Recently, a lot of clients have been asking us to do more on cultural intelligence - it's such a vital skill in today's workplace - so stay tuned! I'm sure we'll share more. In the meantime:

  1. Build your own self-awareness about your cultures and how they affect you at work.

  2. Learn about other cultures and consider the differences in what is valued and what good looks like. Build you social awareness by thinking about how people's cultures affect them at work.

  3. Read The Culture Map. Great book!


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