Influencing Across Cultures

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset

In our flattened, ever-connected global marketplace, success hinges largely on how well people are able to influence others. Engineers and those in operations are often focused on influencing people internal to the organization, while marketing departments typically dwell in the realm of influencing external customers and the media. Matrixed organizations complicate the situation, demanding the use of influencing skills up, down, and sideways. And then there are regulatory bureaucrats to contend with, posing complex problems in all parts of the world.

When working with people from other cultures, which influencing techniques will work best?


Well, it depends…

There are a few patterns that can be helpful for those who are working across cultures on a regular basis and do not have time to brush up on the specific influencing skills used in those cultures. Here are some examples:

Universal vs. Situational Thinking

The first thing to note is that some cultures are more “universalistic” than those in which issues tend to be gauged from a “situational” perspective. People who take a universalistic approach to influencing are for the most part unlikely to vary their tactics to accommodate different situations, seeking instead to remain consistent with laws, ethics, policies, or principles. But those who see things situationally will have an arsenal of tactics to use depending on who is involved, how well they know the people they are trying to influence, and what needs to be accomplished.

In cultures that rely on universalistic thinking, government officials are generally obliged to approve requests for which all regulations have been met. Company employees thus spend time and effort on gaining a thorough understanding of how to meet local regulations—and especially on how to fill out paperwork.

When it comes to cultures that value situational thinking, government officials may ignore or reject applications for seemingly no reason. Most companies therefore have at least one employee whose job is to maintain good relations with various government entities, perhaps by doing favors for key officials or inviting them to meals.

Indirect vs. Direct Communication

In many of the cultures in which indirect communication is valued, influencing tends to take the forms of cajoling, hinting, pestering, or emotional appeals. Cajoling is a lighthearted way to convey one’s wishes while avoiding high-pressure tactics. Pestering, or repetitively mentioning a desire or request, is thought by many indirect communicators to be a sure way to convey the relative importance of an issue. Indirect communication also lends itself to disjointed or circular patterns of communication, as topics may be revisited in a way that reveals a deeper level of meaning.

When working with direct communicators, however, emotional appeals may be regarded as beside the point; cajoling and pestering are often perceived as irritating and childlike. Hinting is generally useless. Tactics that are more effective include convincing, which entails using logic and data to bolster a case. Assertiveness sometimes works as well, especially when it is wrapped in causal logic—“If you don’t do X, then Y will happen.

An engineering manager in France, who preferred a relatively logical, fact-based approach to discussing issues, was dismayed at the seemingly endless, circular discussions created by even minor changes when presented to his company’s Brazilian product team. Over time, however, he came to appreciate the Brazilian team members’ enthusiasm for participating in work processes and their openness in hearing the ideas and opinions of others. He also learned that their extended discussions sometimes brought together ideas in creative solutions that incorporated the best thinking of the team as a whole.

Status- vs. Egalitarian-Oriented Cultures

For people from cultures in which human differences based on status or hierarchy are emphasized, influencing usually takes place through top-down communication, and often involves giving orders or simply demanding that things be done.

Bottom-up communication tends to be channeled through close senior/subordinate relationships and often takes place in informal settings where relative openness is acceptable. In the workplace it is also sometimes attempted through hinting or flattering.

In equality-oriented cultures, a different set of tactics is commonly used in attempts to influence others. Convincing and requesting are the most commonly employed approaches, but in some cases pointed criticisms are acceptable as well. (“We need to change this to X, because Y is not working well.”)

In one case, a Canadian manager complained that his subordinates could not persuade their colleagues in Taiwan to make certain changes in their work. In every case, his subordinates would notify him of the difficulties, and he would discuss the situation with his counterpart in Taiwan. Suddenly, all requested changes would be made.

Although this manager wanted the workers in Taiwan to change their styles so that he did not have to be involved in what he perceived to be minor issues, in the end it was far more effective for him to accommodate their preference for being directed to make changes by their own boss, who knew the individuals well and was regarded as a valued local sponsor of their careers.

A Note about Trust and Trustworthiness

It is often said that the best foundation for being able to influence others is to build trust and demonstrate trustworthiness. But once again, how one builds trust and demonstrates trustworthiness varies from culture to culture. For example:

  • In some cultures, one’s personal attributes—education, age, gender, family name, or professional credentials—may be the most crucial factors in building trust with decision-makers. Company hiring, career planning, and leadership selection are based heavily on such criteria in countries such as Italy, Brazil, and Bangladesh.
  • Another important factor in demonstrating trustworthiness could be visibility at the workplace, including arriving early or staying in the office until late in the day—or both. Staying late at work is very common in places such as Japan and Korea, and one seldom leaves before the boss.
  • Displaying copious amounts of work on a daily basis—such as by including one’s boss or an extraordinary number of people on the cc list of each e-mail—can prove one’s value to others in some cultures. The tendency to copy one’s boss on almost all correspondence is fairly common in India.
  • Yet other cultures value results, or the accomplishment of specific tasks that have been designated as important by leaders or teams. U.S. workers learn early in their careers to mention to others their specific milestone or project accomplishments in ways that might seem unnecessary or boastful elsewhere.

So, if building trust and demonstrating trustworthiness are difficult without knowing specifics about different cultures, how can busy leaders hope to influence others?

Start with An Inclusive Approach

One-on-one conversations with individuals from another culture can be a useful first step in exerting influence across boundaries. Discussions should occur in person if possible, or over the telephone. Please note that communicating via e-mail or holding meetings or conference calls are generally ineffective.

  • Begin with a personal or group request, such as, “My team needs to make X change, but we’re not sure how to gain the cooperation of the project team in Spain.
  • Offer to provide as much background information as the other person needs. People from different cultures require varying amounts of information before offering their opinions.
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as, “What would be the best way to approach this in Spain?
  • Explore general statements by asking for examples.
  • Follow up with a written summary while welcoming additional comments.
  • Weave the ideas and advice into future agendas, proposals, or products in a way that demonstrates to colleagues that they have made a meaningful contribution.
  • Express gratitude in a public or private setting, depending on their cultural preferences.

Such behind-the-scenes discussions enable the person from the other culture to share information that might not be appropriate in a group setting. Talk with more than one person, if necessary, in order to hear ideas and opinions from a representative sample. The bigger the group to be influenced, or the more complex the issue, the more people one should approach for advice.

Hearing the opinions of those from other cultures enables the appropriate crafting of messages and influencing techniques according to the situation and the culture.

Personalized strategies on influencing can be viewed in the GlobeSmart Profile, which offers practical advice for adapting your work style across five dimensions of culture.


Interested in learning more about your preferred work-style and how you can better collaborate with global colleagues and clients?

Take your GlobeSmart Profile for free!