Staring at Our Belly Buttons: Cross-Cultural Recruiting with Erin Meyer

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.

Recruiting is about perception: how does the company see the candidate? Does she come across as smart, analytical, and well-equipped to handle the job?

The problem is that perception is not objective, especially not when people are perceiving one another across cultural boundaries. Just ask INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, whose new book “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” tackles the problem of cross-cultural communication head on.

“In the last 15 years, the world has changed completely, and management has changed completely along with it,” Meyer says. “Fifteen years ago, most people were working with clients and suppliers and employees who came from their own culture. Today, because of globalization, suddenly a large portion of managers are working with people from other countries all the time.”

Thanks to smartphones and wi-fi connections, the contemporary worker can stay in constant contact with clients, colleagues, partners, and employers from all over the world. Recruiters looking to scope out top talent can cast much wider geographical nets. Companies can establish branches on every continent.

As great as this hyper-connectivity seems, it does bring new challenges: now that the workforce is truly global, how do organizations handle cross-cultural management? Taking the idealistic “we’re-all-one-race” approach just doesn’t fly in business. It’s true that people are people, no matter where they’re from, but it’s also true that people from cultures think and act differently from one another.

Meyer, who teaches executive education courses in INSEAD’s organizational behavior department, found herself dissatisfied with management in the globalized workplace: “As the world of management was changing so rapidly — so that suddenly all these cultures of the world were interconnected — the dialogue about management wasn’t changing very much.”

Meyer saw people conducting business without any regard for the complexity and nuance of cultural differences. She recalls walking into a bookstore at INSEAD after spending the day helping executives adapt their negotiation approaches to be more effective with Indian suppliers: “I opened up this brand new book on negotiations by an American author. I was really interested, and I started looking through it. I saw that the implicit assumption by the author was that people were mostly — well, entirely — negotiating with people from their own tribe. I started thinking, ‘This issue is not being addressed.’ The management world is changing entirely, but we’re still staring at our belly buttons and acting like leadership and management are still about understanding people from our own tribe.”

To address the issue and start a dialogue, Meyer wrote “The Culture Map.” She knows that cultural differences are a tricky topic to discuss, but she hopes that introducing people to the realities of culture will start an important conversation. “Whenever you start talking about cultural differences, some people become kind of incensed: Is it okay to categorize? Is it okay to talk about the personality of a group?” Meyer says. “But, no matter what people’s reactions were, I wanted to get people talking about it.”

Who is Erin Meyer?

Though she has lived in France for 14 years, Meyer originally hails from Minnesota. You wouldn’t expect a person from such a “monocultural” (Meyer’s word) part of the U.S. would go on to become an expert in cross-cultural business, but Meyer has done just that.

Meyer first began to think about cultural differences when she spent time teaching in Botswana as part of the Peace Corps after college. She saw that what was successful in a U.S. classroom wasn’t necessarily successful in a classroom in Botswana. “In that job, I started to really see the differences in being in a school system in one country versus another and just noticing the very dramatic differences between how a child is expected to speak to a teacher, for example, in one country verses another,” she says.

Upon returning to the U.S., Meyer met her husband, who is from Paris. Carrying out a long-term  relationship with a man from a different culture has helped Meyer see how cultural differences operate at more personal levels. “In the relationship, I started to feel on a more in-depth level how cross-cultural misunderstandings impacted human relationships,” she says.

Meyer learned even more about cross-cultural relationships when she moved to France, where she initially ran the French branch of a company that specialized in cross-cultural training. “I learned in that job how to be more effective in decoding how the Chinese, or the French, or the Germans may communicate or build trust,” she says.

Meyer spent the last 10 years doing research and developing the framework for the culture map, which is more than just a book — it’s a tool, built on eight domains, to help us understand and communicate with each other across cultures.

What is the “Culture Map”?

It’s hard to say where cultural differences come from. Meyer points out that we can take the long-term approach and tie cultural quirks to historical development — to religions, trades, agriculture, languages, etc — but we needn’t go back that far for our purposes. “I think that a better answer for today is that our school systems are so different from one part of the world to another, and the way we raise children is so different from one part of the world to another,” she says. “As long as those differences exist, our cultures will be different.”

Education systems in different parts of the world use different techniques to foster learning, ranging from debate and hands-on practice to rote memorization. What students learn to do in school invariably shapes how they think and behave in life after school. “All of those different things form the ways that our mind analyzes and understands information, which later on impacts the way that we observe other people’s behaviors,” Meyer says.

Contemporary professionals face the daunting challenge of overcoming these often unconscious differences in order to foster clear, effective communication between people, regardless of cultural disconnect. Meyer believes the culture map can help.

Made of eight domains — communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling — the culture map is essentially a collection of continuums. Cultures are plotted on each continuum according to their overall business practices — e.g., a culture’s spot on the “leading” continuum is determined by how egalitarian or hierarchical leadership tends to be in that culture.

Using the map is a process of compare and contrast: users consider where their culture falls in a given domain and where another culture falls and adjust accordingly. For example, if you’re trying to persuade Russian venture capitalists to fund your Israeli startup, you’ll want to back off of your “application-first” persuasive tactics and focus instead on the concept, according to the culture map.

Eight separate scales may seem like a lot to consider, but Meyer maintains that the complexities of cultural differences require a nuanced approach. “In the cross-cultural field, there have been a few domains that have been studied for many decades,” she says. “What was quite striking to me when I became interested in this field was that understanding culture on just a couple of dimensions was not enough. Cultural differences are so much more complex than that.”

For example, Japanese culture tends to favor hierarchical models of leadership. If one were to draw conclusions about Japanese business practices according to the leadership scale alone, they may believe that Japanese organizations would favor top-down decision making. According to Meyer, this conclusion is incorrect: despite favoring hierarchical leadership, Japanese culture tends counterintuitively toward consensual decision-making. Without the aid of Meyer’s system of continuums, one could easily miss such vital nuance.

Meyer chose these eight scales in particular because they are “the scales that managers come across all the time in their work.” Whether managers are in meetings, recruiting talent, or negotiating a deal, Meyer believes they need to draw on skills that fall into these eight domains.

“Those eight dimensions came directly out of looking at what it was that managers needed to accomplish in their day-to-day business,” Meyer says.

Recruiting Across Cultures

While conducting any sort of business across cultural boundaries can be difficult, the recruiting experience is uniquely perilous.

“The thing about recruiting is it relies almost entirely on our ability to judge one anther’s behavior accurately,” Meyer says. “There are so many aspects of the culture map that will impact how we will perceive another’s behavior during an interview.”

Consider the interview, one of the most important components of the recruitment process. The interviewer must determine whether or not the person sitting across from them is the right fit for the job, and the candidate must demonstrate why the organization should hire them above the competition. However, neither party can effectively carry out their task if cultural differences are leading to misunderstandings.

Meyer elaborates on the idea by explaining how differences between Chinese and American cultures might manifest themselves in interviews and ultimately derail the hiring process: “During an interview, it’s very common that when an American interviewer asks a question, a Chinese interviewee may not respond immediately to the question that was asked but instead give a lot of background information first. They speak about all the elements behind before getting to the point. The American who is interviewing this person might think, ‘This person is not very clear in his thoughts. He’s not very analytical.’ It signifies to the Americans that the individual is not very smart.”

Conversely, a Chinese person interviewing an American candidate may draw a similarly erroneous conclusion, but for different reasons: “If the Chinese human resource manager were interviewing an American and asked the same question, the American is trained to always get right to the point upfront. That may signal to the Asian a lack of ability to think critically. They’re not able to build their argument or describe why they believe something … This comes off as a lack of intelligence to a Chinese person.”

Though the advice doesn’t necessary correspond directly to any of the domains of the culture map, Meyer says that one of the most important things for recruiters to think about is when to talk and when to listen, according to cultural preferences. “There’s been quite a bit of research that’s been done on comfort with silence. It looks at, if one person asks a question, how much of a silence should be given before the next person responds, which is deeply cultural,” she explains. “It’s deeply linked to the way we learned to speak to one another in our families.”

It turns out that Americans are quite uncomfortable with silence, but in cultures like Malaysia, Thailand, and Korea, people are taught to listen more than they talk and to take time to quietly consider a question before responding to it. These different cultural beliefs about what silence means can taint a recruiter’s perception of a candidate without the recruiter even knowing. “What I’ve seen happen in an interview situation is that the American asks the Korean a question. The Korean is waiting two or three seconds before they give their response. They’re formulating their answer in their mind,” Meyer says. “The American takes that silence as a sign that that person doesn’t have the answer or is uncomfortable or didn’t understand them, and the American responds by changing the question, or noting that the person isn’t very articulate.”

There are innumerable ways for cultural differences to sneak into the hiring process, and failing to recognize and account for these differences can cost organizations big time. “You might find that if misunderstand these cues, you have an incredibly talented person in front of you, but you misunderstand them as lacking intelligence or the ability to express themselves,” Meyer says.

Why let miscommunication and misunderstanding keep you from recruiting the best talent?

Read more in Management Styles

Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of