Navigating Cultural Differences Pt. 2 – Task vs. Relationship Orientation

Last month, we kicked off a series called “Navigating Cultural Differences” with an overview of a book called “Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier. You can find last month’s newsletter here as a refresher.

The summary: a surprisingly helpful generalization of cultural preferences is that people raised in colder regions of the world–like Canada, Northern U.S.A., Israel–tend towards one side of a broad cultural spectrum (task orientation, direct communication, low-context interaction, individual identity, and privacy), while people raised in warmer regions of the world–like Southern U.S.A., India, and Brazil–tend towards the other (relationship orientation, indirect communication, high-context interaction, group identity, and inclusion).

This month we’ll be unpacking the difference between task and relationship orientations, the first of the spectrums that have a bearing on multicultural working relationships.

Practically speaking, here’s how this looks:

  • In a cold-climate setting, its perfectly OK for members of a team to keep relationships at arms length and plough through tasks together with few interruptions–because at the end of the day, the purpose of working together was to complete a task.
  • In a hot-climate setting however, there is a deeply rooted priority to cultivate an easy-going, friendly atmosphere when working with others. Great lengths are gone to keep conversations pleasant and relationships on good terms.

So, what can you do about it? How can needless conflict rooted in cultural differences be avoided? Here’s a few pointers to start with.

If you are more task oriented: take a moment to list coworkers who might be more relationally wired–maybe people who frustrate you by bogging down meetings with small talk. These people might feel deprived of a basic human necessity if little effort is made to get to know others personally, and may take lack of interest as a sign of disrespect. Even exchanging a friendly greeting and taking a few moments to share some life news would go a long way.

If you are relationally wired, the trick will be recognizing task oriented people and not taking a lack of relationship building personally. And watch out: you might be pleasantly surprised by the strong relationships that can form in tackling a challenging task with others.

Preferences aside, it might have occurred to you to ask: could either approach ultimately be “better”, or more successful overall? In a study of 55 multinational teams, authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams” asked just that, and found a winning combination of the two.

At the early stages, leaders of the best teams started with a task orientation–clearly defining roles, goals, and management processes. Then, as the team nailed down the working rhythm, and the need for knowledge sharing and negotiation increased, the leaders switched their focus to ensuring strong relationships were built.

The result was teams with both strong relationship and high productivity–in a word, collaboration. It would seem that as far as tasks and relationships go, there might just be a way to have the cake and eat it too.