Earlier this year, a few of us attended DIA 2018 to represent Biorasi. While there, we were fortunate enough to be able to give a talk about some of our experiences entitled “Balancing Unity and Individuality: Leadership Skills for Managing Culturally Divergent Clinical Teams” in collaboration with Brian J. Malkin, Esq., legal counsel at Arent Fox LLP. On our behalf, Mr. Malkin shared his and our expertise on a rescue we performed, wherein cultural differences had the potential to hinder successful business relations and management of the trial. We also recently published this story as a case study.
Mr. Malkin has a 20+ year history of working with food and drug law practice, including intellectual property law practice. But even more importantly for this topic is Mr. Malkin’s experience working internationally, including nations in the Asia-Pacific (AsiaPAC) region.
When working with different cultures, each culture has its own unique set of challenges. It is well-known that Japanese culture is very different from Western culture in terms of how respect is shown. Without a thorough knowledge of exactly what those differences are, it can be difficult to navigate a business relationship. Here are some specific cultural differences and challenges Mr. Malkin included in the talk:
- AsiaPAC workplaces are more formal than Western workplaces. Co-worker interactions are sometimes planned and are more structured compared to Western interactions that are off the cuff or organic.
- AsiaPAC culture and leadership value respect. Individual ideas are also valued, but they need to be worked up through the rungs using a process of common endorsement.
- Compromise is valued, and a face-saving approach in dealing with conflict (e.g., with management) is held in high regard.
- There is a much heavier emphasis on uniform processes and procedures in many AsiaPAC countries – some Western cultures may consider this “bureaucracy.”
- AsiaPAC tends to prioritize groups over individuality, while Western cultures often prize individuality.
- An aggressive “steamrolling” is less effective in getting things done; following procedures and gradually securing the understanding and support (“nemawashi”) of each stakeholder group is the desired and preferred approach to achieve results over the long term. Project managers (PMs) on Western teams should expect to adjust deadlines and expectations as part of the process.
- More than simply a language barrier, a lot of communication relies on shared experiences and understanding – lacking that context often results in overlooking critical pieces of information or plans being impeded.
- Management often secures outcomes before meetings to reduce debate or discussion, giving the potentially false appearance that brainstorming/creative sessions or solutions are frowned upon.
- AsiaPAC culture has a concept called “sontaku.” This is the idea that staff should always be able to infer the will and preferences of their superiors from subtle cues or other indirect behavior.
- There is much more respect for the chain of command in AsiaPAC cultures – a close communication linkage exists between employees and management. This attribute aims at avoiding costly business mishaps and engineering the best business decisions, since the data landscape differs between employees and management.
An strong understanding of these concepts and a wide repertoire of interpersonal skills resulted in a successful study rescue that could have otherwise crashed and burned. If you are planning to engage in international business, it is wise to invest in educating the involved team on the culture specific to the country. Learning a bit of the language can also go a long way in showing respect, as long as you are pronouncing everything correctly!