How difficult can it be?


A significant amount of overseas investment is wasted each year because there are invisible core differences between the American and British cultures. These are not always appreciated by corporations and leaders. Consequently the result can be culture clash. The damage to US – UK relationships leads to an absence of trust, the erosion of communication and cooperation and failure to achieve the common goal. When management time is applied to the ensuing crisis often only the symptoms are tackled.

So, what are the differences, how did they occur and what can we do to get over the shock and pain of culture clash?

Time is Money

The first obvious difference concerns pace, speed of response and the choice between urgent and important actions. In the US time is money. When the Founding Fathers and the settlers were staking land claims and working together to create a survivable environment time was life death. The threat was from starvation and exposure. The solution was food warmth and shelter. Critical survival decisions were taken quickly and persistently allowing the best prepared to make it through to spring.


Man has largely tamed the extreme effects of climate and scarcity of food but, whilst the enemy is different, (competition, cheap foreign labour, commoditization of mature products etc,) modern fears and behaviours are comparable. Money and wealth are now taken as signs of survival and   success. Rather than “appropriate” actions being taken, the UK view can be that, for the US, any action is preferable to none at all.


For some an hour of scheduled time has a dollar value and correspondingly a missed hour has a dollar cost.

Power and How it is Used 

If we take another dimension of difference – hierarchy – we can see an historical difference in the source of power, how power is manifest and the different ways in which it is perceived today.


The newly settled America had sheriffs and Mayors. Having been meritocratically elected or chosen they had real status and power but were also accountable to the mood of the crowd. This can easily be related to the modern US CEO. Whilst in power and being successful, they had authority and permission to give direct orders and put the company’s staff under pressure to act and perform to standards they have set and for the people to make personal sacrifices and take risks to get to those goals.

It could be a black and white existence with a large price paid for failure. If we look at the pharmaceutical, investment banking or automotive businesses we see that management styles can be explicit, direct and commanding in nature. Teams are expected to decide rapidly and take action quickly. Efficiency and deadlines are critical. It is “hard work now” for dream of “rewards in the future”.


The employee is automatically expected to have values that fit with the corporate ethos- ambition, intensity and focus and the desire for salary, bonus, promotion and ever more responsibility. Status is important and is measured by title, salary, office and trappings.



What is the solution to these contrasting styles? Can a foreign manager in the UK have it their way regarding reporting, deadlines, open communication and measures of quality and customer satisfaction? 


Can an American leader develop a UK team to have a sense of dynamism, accountability and pace that would match the US model? 

 So it’s impossible, right?

The symptoms and differences are shocking but not insurmountable. Britain and America would not enjoy such high amounts of mutual investment if it could not be made to work and to work well.


The shock experienced by US Leadership as they enter the UK is probably more extreme than the underlying differences themselves.


At this point it may be useful to avoid the stereotype trap and that of being judgmental. It is a waste of time and talent to judge either nation as good or bad, easy or difficult, right or wrong. They are simply different.


Post imperial Britain is a complex and confused place. We have lost our superpower status, our world ranking, and much of our credibility as innovators and pioneers.  We have lost our manufacturing base, our certainty and comfort. No longer are there jobs for life with large British firms paying good pensions at the end of a predictable career at the age of 60 or 65. As a nation we do not have a clear single identity, threat or goal. We have post – Empire confusion and nothing to unite against.


There are, though, fundamental differences. The US is imperial, the UK is post – imperial, the US is still a superpower, the UK is not. The US has a short history the UK a long one and the US has a Presidential system the UK a Monarchy.


How do the British do business?


Regarding feedback British managers will soften criticism, harsh realities, the appraisal or review process to the point where it difficult to directly detect what is being said. Difficult issues are not tackled in a straightforward manner but by writing lines that must be read between or by starting a whispering campaign around the coffee machine. 


The key difference though is subtle and unconscious. The UK is a relationship-based country. It’s who you know and who’s in the gang, on the inside, in the club or “one of us.”


Pace, action and urgency are not ranked as highly in UK culture companies. It is more about pragmatically getting to the result “somehow.”


Finally class, though disguised, is alive and well in the UK. Upper class values tell us that hard work is acceptable only if it does not show. That to look as if achieving something has cost you effort undermines the thing you are trying to achieve. The modern version of this is COOL.


We can quickly build up a picture of just how far apart our cultures actually are. 


What tools can help?


Everyone is free to use the knowledge that relationships are core to UK commercial life.


We need good manners, indirect speech and equal status communication to break through, bond and to form UK working relationships that are robust. This is the most powerful tool in translating US objectives into UK delivery.


By employing small talk, active listening and coaching techniques based on eliciting facts and answers from the person sitting opposite you the foreign manager will get a lot further than by giving commands or talking about shareholder value. If we can mobilize an employee using that employee’s own resources we will have created an empowered, independent and proud UK worker who will contribute more. 


The American manager, when shocked to discover that he has 10 or a hundred of these tricky Brits to manage, can begin by looking out for individuals that might bridge the cultural gap. These people will be identified by their values which will seem closer to home. Test them, recruit them and invest the most precious resource in them – MANAGEMENT TIME. They can spread the message in a UK friendly manner. They can also test the temperature and tell if things have gone too far.


During the US leader’s 6 – month or 3 – year assignment in the UK he can make an impact with the corporate team. It will not be achieved by shouting at them like a recruiting sergeant or by asking them about company vision and mission statements. It will come about by adjusting his communication styles by 5 or 10% to radically change the relationship with the British team. The start may seem slow and painful but the reward will be worth it as cooperation begins, and differences are leverage to create a positive outcome.


Adjusting tone, pace and vocabulary should make the leader more effective as his amplified message creates rapport and a strong platform for useful dialogue.


Without engagement, relationship and trust, and outsider should not expect to be successful in effecting change in an established British team. However using the techniques described above it should be possible to begin to break through and to learn something about how we can continue to develop communication and leaderships skills to be ever more effective both with foreign culture teams and our own.

 By Matthew Hill 

Matthew Hill is a Leadership Trainer and Intercultural Coach who aims to provoke but never offend (Unless he does.) He can be heard, now, at;

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 7th, 2010 at 11:32 am and is filed under cost of getting it wrong, cross-cultural differences, Europe, General, North America . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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