Four things to think about as you read The Culture Map

The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead and Get Things Done Across Cultures by Erin Meyer has become the go-to reference for organisations with multicultural teams. It is backed by extensive research based on thousands of interviews across the globe and years of personal experience working cross-culturally. The Culture Map breaks down cultural differences into eight scales: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing and Scheduling. It takes a neutral, non-judgmental approach to different cultures, which is an invaluable reminder in cultural conflict.

While it might be tempting to teach the eight scales in a short seminar (possibly to avoid putting yet another thing on pre-field reading lists), there is a danger in this as so much of the value in the book comes from the nuanced and insightful stories and examples. As a training tool in a global mission context, The Culture Map is limited by the fact that the norms for each country are based on interviews with people involved in global business. This means a resource like this should be contextualised for other kinds of organisations. Unlike in business where it can be tempting to take a transactional approach to relationships, multinational Christian organisations value mutual relationships and want to love and serve with all cultures. Here are four things workers should know as they read The Culture Map:

1. The US is a big and diverse place

As Australians raised in inner-city Sydney, we were familiar with cultural difference. We attended schools with more students from Arab or Asian backgrounds than Anglo and have been involved in football communities aligned with different migrant groups. We felt prepared before going overseas, and coped reasonably well. We worked out how to lead meetings with fun-loving, story-telling Thai colleagues, how to approach the cautious Korean leader, how to get advice from the relational Brazilian and how to build a friendship with the gruff French parents at our kids’ school. What most confounded us was the Americans.

As James Plueddemann learned “some of the trickiest cross-cultural challenges can occur within what we think is our own culture but is in reality a unique subculture” (Leading Across Cultures). In The Culture Map countries are presented as a spot on each scale, but Meyer is very explicit that this reflects the hump where the majority of responses fall and there will be outliers. There will be entire regions, subcultures and organisations to which individuals belong that will not necessarily align with the normative point for a country. When it comes to understanding US missionaries, looking at a norm based on what Meyer describes as a “range of acceptable business behaviours in a given culture” could easily lead to misunderstandings.

Many Australians have commented that they roll their eyes when the “where are you from” question elicits a state rather than a country response from Americans. The assumption that the rest of the world knows one state from another seems insufferably arrogant or parochial to non-Americans. However, recently we’ve begun to discover that the answers people give to that question are a key to understanding those Americans we work with. Mark Abadi in Business Insider hypothesises that the US actually has 11 separate “nations” with entirely different cultures. While the article is brief, we suspect further research would reveal interesting divergence in some of the “nations” from the US norms outlined in The Culture Map. When our co-workers mention their state, they are often giving an insight into their own cultural identification. The way Americans describe where they are “from” is often quite complex. It was interesting to hear colleagues say they were “from” a state they had only lived in for a few years or to hear them describe themselves as “living in … but from …”. Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, they were aligning themselves with a subculture and indicating the norms they prefer. 

Religious cultures also create divergence from dominant norms. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, has led teams across the world but was raised in the Southern US. When trying to understand the bluntness of Israeli colleagues she realised that “the religious cultures of our youth had an impact on our willingness to challenge each other at work”. She argues that in the Southern US challenging religious tradition is discouraged and that this has a flow-on effect where “people will do almost anything to avoid conflict or argument”. The Culture Map alludes to the impact of religious traditions. It emphasises very strongly the impact of Confucian thinking on Chinese culture but gives little thought to the impact of particular kinds of cultural Christianity on pockets of US culture. 

In a mission organisation we are much less likely to meet people with experience in a US global business culture than we are to meet people steeped in the culture of the Southern states or cultural Christianity (though we are not suggesting that these are all or even the majority of American missionaries). But it is important to help non-Americans understand the range of cultures present in the US and the relative position these subcultures may have on the culture scales. Above all remember that empathy and curiosity will help us figure out and relate to individuals.

2. Organisational culture is a whole other thing to understand

When we first moved overseas we experienced the expected culture shock within our multicultural team. We also experienced almost as much organisational culture shock. Plueddemann recognises that radical differences exist between the leadership cultures in different kinds of organisations. One of the distinctive features of a multi-national mission organisation is that it is a patchwork of national organisations formed into a fellowship under the influence but not authority of an international leadership team. Unlike a global business, we don’t just take a job, we join the fellowship as couples or whole families and often expect it to operate more like a family. An organisation’s culture is influenced as much by the history and the nature of the work it does as it is by all the national cultures that make it up. Organisational culture is not monolithic and can vary from team to team depending on the national and professional backgrounds of the members. Multicultural teams often establish a separate culture – a set of norms and rules that govern engagement. Sometimes this is set by the leader’s culture but ideally, as Meyer recommends, it is low context – explicitly agreed upon to ensure a smooth functioning team. Things like preference for hierarchy and methods for handling conflict will inevitably vary across different pockets of an organisation. It is crucial that workers understand organisational culture, whether it aligns with the organisation’s expressed values or not. To fail to do so risks sending new workers out guaranteed of energy sapping conflict and learning things the hard way. 

3. Sometimes leaders behave unbiblically

Knowing how different cultures think forces members of multicultural teams to question their own assumptions about the ‘correct’ way to do things. They help people move away from the assumption that how they think or behave is universal or preferable. As Christians we have an even better way of seeing people. Timothy Keller explains in Every Good Endeavour that all people, Christian or not, are image bearers of Christ and worthy to be “treated with honour and love, regardless of whether they culturally, morally, and personally appeal to or offend us”.

Understanding culture helps us avoid assuming our co-worker is incompetent or trying to make our life difficult. However, read any news source and it is hard not to realise there are plenty of terrible leaders in Christian organisations. A proper understanding of both sin and common grace should lead us to understand that just because our organisation or our partners are Christian doesn’t mean they are more immune to sinful behaviour. Understanding cultural differences stops us tarring a whole culture with negative stereotypes. However, there are narcissistic Americans, rebellious Australians, personal-kingdom-building Koreans, or classist Brits just as there are in all cultures. We must be careful to not excuse damaging behaviours as just cultural differences or we may enable long term bullying, allow team members to suffer serious long-term hurt, or be slow to act on concerns raised. 

We sat in on a session on The Culture Map for new workers, where one participant raised the issue of narcissism in leadership. The presenter’s response was “see you prove my point that’s your Australianness seeing the behaviour as narcissistic”. However, narcissism is a real and potent danger within Christian organisations as Chuck De Groat unpacks in When Narcissism Comes to the Church. Of course, egalitarian and consensual Australians with our love of flat structures and collaborative decision-making may unnecessarily assume leaders from hierarchical, top-down cultures are power hungry or narcissistic. However, that does not mean a particular leader isn’t narcissistic, even if where their culture sits on the evaluating, deciding or disagreeing scales can make them harder to spot to an outsider. It is dangerous to excuse all behaviours as cultural and miss warning signs for pathological or sinful behaviours. In so doing, we may encourage people to persist in toxic situations or miss opportunities to give them support. 

Having a cultural advisor can really help. When struggling with a colleague, find someone from the same culture who can better judge or explain the behaviour in context. This was true for us during a time when we were nervous in a cross-cultural work relationship about speaking directly about what seemed neglectful and bullying behaviour. An older pastor, acting as a cultural advisor, was able to call out the behaviour as unacceptable in a Christian leader without fearing that he was misunderstanding culture. It is possible to express humble, cruciform leadership in any culture and we need to be continually looking to form leaders in Christ’s image.

4. The Bible speaks to culture

Meyer speaks of learning to be polite in all contexts. As Christians however, called to love God and love neighbour, we should be seeking to be more than polite. Culture is not sacred; the word of God is. It is not enough to understand another culture as we are called to also ask what the Bible says into that culture. It has been a privilege to sit with local pastors from at least seven different countries and hear them share what the Bible is saying to their culture. God is calling people from all nations to repentance and to witness through and to their culture. In the cultures of which those pastors spoke, each of them were far better equipped to bring change. The spread of the early church brought change to the cultures it came in contact with and we can expect the same as the gospel spreads through the communities we work in. However, we also know that culture has seeped back into the church shaping and corrupting it. We cannot assume our Western culture is any more biblical than other cultures and should not assume Western standards are more biblical. We know how the pressures of our own culture shapes, challenges and sometimes outright attacks our faith. The Bible has very little to say about how to conduct a performance review or structure a meeting agenda. It does, however, say a lot about humility and who we are to be in Christ. In a multicultural work environment, we should be calling on the Holy Spirit to be at work changing us, the culture we are working in, and the lives of our co-workers. We need to be open to being challenged on those parts of life where culture has dulled us to the Word’s call on our life and we need to be willing to call others we serve alongside to similarly give their lives completely to Christ, not simply formed by culture, but truly transformed. 

Rebecca and Andrew

One thought on “Four things to think about as you read The Culture Map

  1. Hi Bec n Andrew,

    Love it! Brutally honest. You have stories and we have stories, and some of these overlap. Happy to chat with you about this stuff if that would be helpful.

    We are in the process of moving to a semi in inner city Newcastle. You are welcome to take a day to come n hang out with us. If you n the kids enjoy walking as you talk, we are just minutes walking away from great beaches n promenades n ice cream shops (unless you like afogatos, which are best enjoyed on our new balcony).

    Blessings, Phill (& Di)

    Phillip Marshall
    M: +61 490 411 947 (WhatsApp)


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