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Communicating across borders requires cultural understanding

Erin Meyer

Cultural differences can color perceptions of colleagues and complicate working relationships, but employees and employers can take those differences into account to create more positive interactions across country borders, according to an expert on cultural mapping.

Erin Meyer, author of “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” and a professor at Paris-based business school INSEAD, discussed her research on culture mapping, which breaks differences down to eight behavioral scales — communicating, evaluating, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, scheduling and persuading — during the opening keynote address at the Monday general session at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. annual conference in Boston.

“It’s not a question of looking at what individuals are like,” she said. “It’s a question of understanding how we perceive one another based on the big gaps on the scales.” In the communication dimension, for example, Anglo-Saxon countries such as the United States generally tend to communicate in a low context, meaning that they assume a low level of shared reference points, so they believe good professional communication must be very explicit to deliver a clear, simplistic message, she said. When working with low-context cultures, people should be as explicit as possible, she said.

In contrast, countries such as Japan with long histories tend to be high context, meaning they assume they have shared reference points, so their communication tends to be more implicit or nuanced, she said. When working with people in high-context cultures, it’s best to be less repetitive, ask clarifying questions and work on “reading the air,” meaning understanding the nuances of what people are saying, she said.

The exception for typically low-context countries such as the United States comes in the context of giving negative feedback, with U.S. managers taught to put a positive spin even when offering critical feedback to employees, she noted.

“It’s a very interesting and confusing pattern,” she said. For “Americans, the lowest-context culture in the world, the focus is on clarity, specificity, transparency at all moments, except when it comes to speaking about something negative. It’s very confusing for people who come from other countries.”

Risk Manager of the Year

Earlier in the session, RIMS honored Luke Figora, the senior associate vice president and chief risk and compliance officer at Northwestern University, as its 2019 Risk Manager of the Year. Mr. Figora oversees risk governance operations and is responsible for the enterprise risk management program of the Evanston, Illinois-based university, which has about 33,000 students, faculty and staff and generates about $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

“I think the biggest change that I would point to would be the increasing level of interest and involvement of the board of trustees directly in risk and insurance,” he said of his experience as a risk manager for a higher education institution over the past 10 years.

“I think the landscape of higher education has expanded their understanding of risk and their desire to go deeper into these topics. It’s forced us to professionalize that much more. I think their expectations continue to grow, and our margins for error continue to shrink,” Mr. Figora said.

His risk management team participated in the formation of the Northwestern Prison Education Program at a local correctional facility, sending faculty into the facility to teach.

“I think working in higher education forces you to expand your comfort zone a little bit,” he said. “In this specific case, the easy answer would have been to say no. But I tried to take a different perspective on it. I got out from behind the desk and I spent a day with our faculty member and I saw the passion she had for the topic and the impact it could have on society. That made me focus on the upside of the risk and find a way to make it happen.”

RIMS also announced it would be make a $600,000 donation to the Spencer Foundation.

To view the complete Tuesday edition of the Business Insurance RIMS Show Daily, click here.






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