Cultural Differences in the Workplace: How to Adapt

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What impact do cultural differences in the workplace have on a global organization? How did Netflix adapt as it grew globally?

Cultural differences in the workplace can complicate organizational relationships. At Netflix, the established culture of Freedom and Responsibility didn’t always translate well to other countries.

Learn how Netflix adapted to cultural differences in the workplace as it grew.

Cultural Differences in the Workplace at Netflix

By 2011, Netflix had cultivated a culture of Freedom and Responsibility that was enabling the company to produce great results in the U.S. Hastings began expanding the company into other countries—first in Canada, then Latin America, Europe, and Pacific Asia. By 2016, Netflix was in more than 130 countries worldwide. The expansion was so successful that within three years:

  • The number of subscribers outside the U.S. more than doubled, from 40 million to 88 million.
  • The total number of employees doubled.

Still, Hastings knew from his past international travel that certain experiences and practices can’t be translated directly into other cultures, which meant that he had to be ready to adapt in order to be successful in other countries. For example, when he was in Swaziland as a Peace Corps volunteer, he couldn’t understand why his high school math students were stumped by a simple word problem about how many tiles it would take to cover a floor—until he realized that they didn’t know what tiles were because they all lived in huts with mud or concrete floors. Hastings considered whether the corporate culture he’d worked so hard to develop would work outside the U.S., or whether it would cause confusion and misunderstanding like his math problem had. 

Hastings looked to Google as a model. Like Netflix, Google was known for having a distinct corporate culture. When Google expanded globally, company leaders didn’t try to adapt Google’s culture to fit the countries it moved into—instead, they hired people in those countries who fit the Google culture. Hastings followed suit and decided to find foreign job candidates who could adapt to the culture he had carefully cultivated at Netflix. The company would then train those new hires on the ins and outs of working within a culture of Freedom and Responsibility. Additionally, while Hastings acclimated international employees to the Netflix way, he would also remain open to adapting to and learning from their cultures. 

Adapt Candor Cross-Culturally

Hastings found that cultural differences in the workplace were hardest with Netflix’s culture of candor. This was one of the cornerstones of Netflix’s culture, but each country’s attitude toward candor and providing feedback—especially to superiors—differed greatly. The differences were even built into the languages: 

  • Cultures that were more comfortable with direct feedback used words called “upgraders,” such as “totally” and “absolutely.” For example, “This is totally unacceptable.”
  • Cultures that were more indirect used “downgraders” to soften negative feedback, such as “kind of” and “slightly.” For example, “It’s going to cost slightly more than you projected” instead of “Your projection was way off.”

One of the most extreme examples was Japan, whose culture is indirect and conflict-avoidant. The American managers who helped to build Netflix’s regional office in Tokyo struggled to get Japanese employees to provide actionable, constructive feedback. With guidance, the American supervisors eventually helped their Japanese employees to provide managers with feedback during one-on-one meetings, but employees seldom gave each other impromptu feedback during meetings and presentations. 

Through their experiences in Japan and other indirect cultures, Netflix’s leaders learned important lessons for creating a comfortable middle ground in which employees from indirect cultures can still adhere to the company’s culture of candor. 

Lesson #1: Create More Opportunities for Formal Feedback 

Netflix leaders discovered that employees in indirect cultures struggled to give feedback on the spot—but if they were given guidelines and assigned to prepare feedback, they excelled as they would on any other task. Managers found several keys to success: 

  • Make feedback an agenda item for meetings and other events.
  • Provide instructions and a clear structure for the feedback.
  • Deliver feedback that initially focused on small, easily actionable tasks.
  • Increase the frequency of opportunities for formal feedback, in order to give people more chances to practice as they become more comfortable.
  • Invest time and effort in relationship building, which would soften the sting of negative feedback in many cultures.
  • Don’t expect much impromptu feedback among employees—even as they grow more accustomed to Netflix’s culture of candor—and instead maximizing the gains from the formal feedback moments.

Lesson #2: Cultural Differences in the Workplace Can Be Mitigated If You Learn Others’ Cultures

The way people interpret the tone of communication is relative: A message that may sound straightforward and perfectly acceptable in an American office could be considered rude and aggressive in a Singaporean workplace—and the same message could sound indirect and fluffy to a Dutch employee. Netflix employees must understand the company’s emphasis on candor while also keeping in mind that their colleagues from other cultures may have different attitudes toward frankness. To prevent cultural differences in the workplace from impeding progress and efficiency, Netflix employees across the globe must adapt to giving and receiving feedback that is more (or less) candid than they’re typically comfortable with. This calls for employees to: 

  • Use the 4A feedback guidelines (discussed in Chapter 2), plus a fifth A: Adapt your delivery when giving feedback and your reaction when receiving feedback, based on the culture of the person you’re working with. 
  • Discuss and explore cultural differences.
  • Coach employees from less direct cultures to view frank feedback not as rude, but helpful. 

When employees from direct cultures speak with people from indirect cultures, they should try to soften their negative feedback to accommodate the receiver and achieve their desired results—if the receiver is put off by the tone of the critique, she’s less likely to follow the advice. The cultural differences in the workplace can be adapted to. Several ways to soften the message include: 

  • Make the message feel friendly and insert relationship-based touches (such as an emoji). 
  • Avoid placing blame, and instead focus on the issue and resolution. 
  • Frame the feedback as a suggestion instead of a directive
Cultural Differences in the Workplace: How to Adapt

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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