You are a savvy professional, and a social human being. You understand the value of having colleagues that support your ideas, business allies that want to collaborate with you, and friends that will help you when you are in need. Right? Then you will also understand how critical it is to have such allies on your side when you are building a career and life in a different culture.

In today’s post, I will show you one of the biggest characteristics that defines a culture, signs that show its influence on a person, and how you can use it to your advantage to develop a genuine relationships with people.

Let’s get started!

  • Why is it that Americans at a workplace hardly ever answer the question, “How are you doing?”
  • Why is it that Indians almost never say “No” if you ask them, “Can you do this?”
  • Why is it that Koreans and Chinese almost make it a point to hang out with their colleagues outside of work?

The answer lies in a major distinction that shapes every culture – task oriented vs. relationship oriented view.

I first came across this concept a book titled “Cross-cultural Business Behavior” by Richard Gestland while taking MBA classes like “Globalization” and “International Marketing”. (I highly recommend the book if you want to learn more!)

The concept is fairly simple. There are some cultures that value getting a task at hand done whereas in some other cultures, long term relationships with people matter more than a task they are handling right now.

Of course, no country falls completely into one extreme or the other. It usually lies somewhere along the spectrum, some closer to extremes than others.

The USA and Canada are examples of task oriented cultures whereas India and China are examples of relationship oriented cultures.

How does this value exhibit in the behavior of people?

Task oriented cultures view dedication to finishing a task as a way to show respect, professionalism, willingness to be a part of the team. You build relationships by proving that you get things done for the team. Any interruptions in the process are viewed as distractions and the lack of commitment, which keep you away from forming meaningful friendships.

In comparison, relationship oriented cultures allow interruptions by other people because they do not want to be rude and hurt others by not accommodating needs of those individuals. Chatting about stuff that is totally unrelated to a task at hand is essential for forming relationships beyond work environment. Socializing is a big part of work. Even in many last minute or serious meetings in India, you will see that food is an integral part of the meeting. Many times, the task related work is done outside office hours, and planning meetings are used to form relationships.

So now can you tell answers to those questions I asked you at the beginning of this post?

Americans ask you, “How are you doing?” out of courtesy more so than an interest in your life. Hence, once the question is out of the way, nobody bothers answering it because now that task becomes more important. However, you will see that as you get to know your American friends, they indeed expect a response from you or also share with you how they are doing. That is good indicator of their familiarity with you.

Indians have trouble saying, “No” to many things because they do not want their inability to do things to come across as their unwillingness to help you. When you hear a “Yes” from an Indian, make sure you dig deeper – politely, and respectfully. If you create an environment where they feel safe saying “No”, they might just come clean because now they can trust that their future relationship with you is not going to be affected by their answer at this point.

Koreans and Chinese want to do business over drinks or social gatherings. Why? For the same reasons. They want to first build a relationship with you, know that you are trustworthy, and then only let you in their business.

Obviously, people do vary. So there is always a personal view that may or may not match the cultural expectation. But there is a reason we define a characteristic as a part of a culture. That’s because most people from that culture exhibit that characteristic behavior. So combine the two; try to understand a human being based on their culture, but don’t forget to allow room for personal perspectives.

Now clearly, I was not born with this knowledge. I had to learn it by observing people from different cultures, making mistakes, and then finding out the right way. That’s why I am sharing some tips with you that I have learned over the years. These are so easy to implement, that you will start reaping the benefits within weeks. Let me know how it goes for you.

Quick tips:

If you are dealing with somebody in a task oriented culture:

  • Make sure you do your work on time.
  • Come prepared to show progress in update meetings.
  • Relate everything you say to the task at hand, productivity, and efficiency.

If you are dealing with somebody in a relationship oriented culture:

  • Make sure you ask them how they are at the beginning of every meeting, listen to their answer, and most importantly respond to it!
  • Socialize and chat with them during work hours, and outside of work.
  • For bonus points, remember their birthday, names of their children and what they like. 🙂
One funny story:

Once my colleague and I had an idea of having a summer outing for our team in the US. We thought it will be fun and a good team building activity. We took the idea to our HR Director, then to my boss, then to our CEO but nobody seemed interested.

After a month, we tried a new argument with my boss: “We are working hard on this new project. However not all team members have worked together before which creates some communication issues slowing down the progress of the project. We have a simple solution. Spend a few hours doing something outside of work. We will meet in a fun environment, informally striking conversations, project ideas, and opinions. This will create a safe space for feedback, and will move the project ahead faster.”

The outcome of bringing team members closer and speeding up the way they work, did not change. But the moment we highlighted the task aspect over team building aspect, we got ourselves a great summer outing!   

In conclusion:

Like other cultural indicators, task or relationship orientation shapes people’s behavior in everyday life. It can be easy to detect with some observation and experimentation.

But when you understand it, your interactions will become so much more positive and fruitful. When I figured it out, I knew when to focus on my to-do list and when to chat. I could tell what will motivate an individual – a lure of “A” grade or the fact that their team is counting on their work. I started developing relationships with people from task-oriented cultures, and getting tasks done from people with relationship-oriented cultures.

I hope the tips I shared today will help you do the same.

Today’s question:

Share in the comments what you think your home country’s cultural orientation is. Is it any different than how you behave personally?

I would love to hear where you are from, and if you have changed over the years.

Thank you!


Image credit: BlueOlive