Adapting to Relationship-based Business Cultures 

Mobility magazine, July 2003 

U.S. businesspeople are accustomed to getting the job done first and forging long-term relationships second. Kreicker illustrates why this business model is counter-productive in many countries around the world. Reprinted, with permission, from the Michigan International Lawyer's Journal, Winter, 2003.

By Noel Kreicker 

Completing tasks and building relationships often are at odds in the competitive, fast-paced, and resourceful business culture of the United States. We work hard to meet tight deadlines and accomplish ambitious goals for the benefit of the organization and ourselves. Afterward, we celebrate and relax with friends and colleagues. The attitude becomes, "Let's get the job done first; we'll spend time getting to know each other later."

The United States is a task-focused culture whereas most other countries are relationship-focused. Relationship-based cultures meet deadlines and accomplish goals differently. Achieving designated tasks is the result of time-honored, well-oiled relationships. Thus the quickest and best way to "get the job done" with business partners from other countries is to surrender the urgency of the task to the establishment of long-term relationships. This is not an easy task for Americans.

In the United States, when introduced to someone new, the first thing we want to know about them is what they do or what their accomplishments are as an individual. Our identity is tied strongly to our jobs (our "tasks"). Thus it is understandable in dual-career relationships where one person gives up their job to follow the other, that the furloughed partner will experience an identity crisis. Being "jobless" is a potent negative definition of self. Also, we relish the stories of the "self-made-man," or "rags to riches." We live in a meritocracy that celebrates the accomplishments of individuals.

When introductions are made in relationship cultures, a person's first interest is to learn about the newcomer's connections and affiliations, or how he or she fits into society. What is the family's name and history? Who is he or she related to? What is their circle of influence? Where did he or she attend school? How long has he or she belonged to various organizations? A person's identity is through their links to others. Relationship cultures tend to be group-oriented and consider the good of society or the collective over that of the individual. Australians have a saying, "cut the tall poppy," indicating that assertion of superiority by the individual is detrimental to the whole.

Tasks and Relationships Meet
The following stories illustrate the collision of task and relationship cultures.

An HR manager from the United States and an HR manager from Latin America interviewed applicants for a leadership position in Mexico. The U.S. manager was ready to hire an outstanding candidate with superior skills and a great track record. To his frustration, the Latin American HR manager insisted on hiring a "less qualified" person with impressive familial and political connections. Why? It was because the person with the strongest personal ties would be able to achieve the company's goals more quickly and easily in Mexico where "who you know" often can be more important than "what you know." 

A delegation of Koreans came to the Midwest for a four-day visit. Their American hosts arranged for a car to pick them up at the airport and take them to their hotel. An itinerary of scheduled meetings was awaiting them, along with a list of restaurants in the vicinity. In spite of the Americans' good intentions, the Koreans did not feel respected or well-cared for. When the Americans had been in Korea a few months earlier, the Koreans accompanied them relentlessly, ensuring that all their needs were met. The Americans' response to this "proper hosting" was annoyance. They felt smothered and unable to enjoy any time by themselves. Consequently, when the Koreans arrived in the United States, the Americans made the mistake of assuming that they would welcome the unscheduled time to be on their own.

A new assembly plant was built by an American company in a town in Eastern Europe. The company's intention to be "fair and generous" by offering their new laborers four times the usual hourly wages suddenly disrupted the social network of the town. The villagers were anxious about who among them would benefit from the lucrative new jobs. Realizing their mistake, the company decided to hire one person from each family unit, whenever possible, to equalize the distribution of monetary gain throughout the town and help keep harmony among the local population. In relationship cultures, "fair and generous" rewards are expected to be distributed equitably among the group.

Business function Task cultures Relationship cultures
Communication Direct, explicit style;  Indirect, implicit style; "say it like it is" face-saving protocols
Negotiations Linear, paper-driven; contracts are the ultimate authority Circuitous,  relationship-driven; contracts are a mere formality
Meetings Decisions made in meetings  Decisions made before or after meetings
Employee rewards Merit-based pay and advancement; individual recognition Needs taken care of  by employer;  team recognition
Problem-solving Individual initiative Team initiative

Making a Distinction
There are important distinctions between task and relationship cultures that affect many aspects of business. The chart above lists several examples of business functions along with generalities about how they manifest differently in the two types of cultures. 

What are the liabilities when relationships are minimized or disregarded by task-driven companies? People from other cultures become wary of us and our motives. We are perceived as insincere and exploitative, interested only in the bottom line. They may say "yes" to us or appear to be in agreement, when in fact they are only appeasing us and have no intention of supporting the plans we have proposed. We become blindsided by our assumptions, thinking that both sides are in accord. Consequently, when the deal gets bogged-down or takes a surprising turn, we feel offended and conclude that we have been deceived or manipulated. 

Had relationship-building been our first order of business, the conversations over time with our potential business partners would have been easier and far more productive. We would have been able to pick up critical nuances and signals earlier in the negotiations, saving us time, money, and frustration.

Every culture has its unique business protocol and means of establishing mutually beneficial relationships. The ways of attaining trust, respect, and comfort are culturally relative and essential to know in advance of all interactions. The best advice is to learn as much as possible from credible sources prior to engaging in overseas business ventures. The savvy international businessperson will invest in cultivating long-term relationships as the most effective way to accomplishing the desired tasks. 

Tips for Adapting to a Relationship Culture
Meet in person. There are no substitutes for face-to-face introductions and interactions. It is worth the extra time and money.

Choose your team according to those who are adept at building good relationships and who will be the closest match to their counterparts. The best team members are not necessarily those who are the most accomplished in their U. S. environment.

Interact in an ongoing, face-to-face basis to accelerate the relationship-building process.

Send the same team each time to demonstrate you want to engage in a long-term relationship.

Learn what "proper hosting" is expected from overseas visitors. Understand what is expected of you as their guest.

Use the telephone, rather than e-mail, if you cannot meet in person. Summarize your conversation in an e-mail.

Compose e-mail messages in a conversational manner, rather than using only bullet points.

Spend time on the preliminaries of doing business. Take time to gain knowledge about business practices in the new culture from credible sources.

Avoid rushing into discussions about the product, delivery speed, quality measures, and the like.

Build a realistic timetable for meeting the company's goals. Next, multiply this realistic timetable by a factor of two or three for greater accuracy.

Be aware that the way business is practiced in the United States may impede success in other countries.

Noel Kreicker is president and founder of IOR Global Services, Northbrook, IL. She can be reached at e-mail or Web site