How Can Companies Benefit from Intercultural Training? – An Introduction to the Lewis Model.
In a hypercompetitive, global environment having technical knowhow is no longer sufficient to meet the demands of modern economies. As companies merge and become increasingly interconnected, the ability to interact with people from different cultures is an important part of person’s professional skill set. International corporations are putting a great focus on the employee’s wherewithal to understand cultural differences, adapt appropriate behaviour in new settings and manage diverse teams effectively and mindfully.
But with over two hundred national cultures and numerous other distinctions caused by regional, organisational, professional and individual differences, one can only wonder how many ‘adaptations’ are needed to succeed in today’s multicultural world.
Richard D. Lewis (https://www.crossculture.com), a linguist and leading cross-cultural authority, has spent several decades working on a system of categorisation that can help business and other professionals interact successfully in the global environment. Lewis has found that despite large variations stemming from historical backgrounds, religious affiliations and other sociocultural factors, all populations possess features that divide them into 3 unique cultural types, which he calls linear-active, multi-active and reactive.
The Lewis Model of Cultural Analysis
Linear-active people include mainly English-speaking countries (North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand) and Northern Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland). Lewis describes them as task-oriented planners who respect deadlines, value punctuality and do one thing at a time in accordance with a strictly defined linear agenda. Members of linear societies are guided by logic rather than emotions, have faith in policies and procedures and use official channels to achieve their objectives.
Multi-active people (mostly found in Southern Europe, Mediterranean countries, South American, sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and Slavic countries) are relationship-oriented, talkative and impulsive. They like to do many things at the same time, show little appreciation of deadlines or punctuality and adhere to emotions rather than rationality. For them relationships and people are more important than schedules or written agreements.
Reactive people, also known as the listening types, belong to major countries in Asia (Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Turkey, as well as Finland, Britain, and Sweden in Europe – the last two showing only occasional features from this category). They are the most introverted cultures who rarely initiate discussions or jump into fast action but instead listen carefully before taking their turn at speaking. Reactive people get on well with both linear and multi-active cultures due to their exceptional adaptive skills and the equal importance they attach to both relationships and planning.
According to Lewis, the commonality of traits and behaviours observed in each cultural group facilitates interactions between their members. For instance, the simililarity in the underlying characteristics shared by members of the linear category makes the collaboration between Germans and Dutch easier than between Germans and Argentinians. Lewis notes that most intercultural conflicts and misunderstandings occur on the inter-category plane, i.e in interactions between members of distinct groups. The sources of frictions can be reduced to the following areas:
1. Attitudes and Values
The unique and distinct worldviews of all three cultures describes by Lewis makes intercultural cooperation fraught with all kinds of difficulties. ‘Why can’t the Spanish deliver their goods as agreed in the schedule?’ ask the Germans. ‘Why should we stick to the old plan when there have been changes to the production schedule?’ reply the Spanish. ‘Why don’t the Chinese speak their mind openly in public?’ ponder the Americans. ‘Why do the Americans get down to business so quickly?’ ask the Chinese. When people belonging to different cultural groups sit down to do business together their varied concepts of leadership, trust, professionalism, ethics, negotiation or meeting etiquette, outweigh the existing commonalities.
2. Communication Styles
Communication styles and ways of gathering information are further manifestations of the deep-seated differences in values. The pragmatic Swiss or Dutch uses speech mainly for ‘fact sharing’ and draws on databases and research to obtain ‘solid’ information. Linear cultures are known for their direct style of communication – saying explicitly and truthfully what one means is more important that saving the face of the interlocutor. In contrast, the loquacious and gregarious Italian uses speech for expressing opinions and have less understanding of a data-driven communication. No business meeting is considered successful unless the right time is spent on developing the proper relationship with the client. This typically entails unrestrained freedom of expression and frequent interruptions which signify interest and engagement. Unlike the blunt-speaking Dutch or emotionally expressive Italian, reactive cultures do not voice their opinions straight away, but instead use speech to create harmony, balance and consensus. They listen attentively and ask clarifying questions before contributing their views or forming an impression. For the introverted Japanese or Finn the true meanings reside in subtle contextual clues (body language, use of space, power relations). One needs to read between the lines to understand their true intentions and learn to cope with silence which, like other non-verbal signals carries important information.
3. Concept of Time
The way the three groups view and organise time is another significant distinction. For the task-oriented person, time is an expensive commodity. It is scarce and precious and therefore cannot be wasted. The linear cultures see time as monochronic. They like to focus on one thing at a time and complete their tasks within precise schedules. Their lives are defined by clocks and calendars in order to achieve the utmost efficiency. Multi-actives enjoy doing many things at the same time, in true polichronic fashion. Their time is event or personality-oriented, which means it can be stretched with no end as long as it fulfils relational aims. It is people and meetings that matter, not scheduling or the ordering of things. By contrast, in reactive societies time revolves in a circular fashion. Things come and go but it is a constant, self-renewing process. This way of thinking about time has a big impact on the Asian style of decision-making. In contrast to the Western fixation with speed and sequential management, reactive people need more time to think and tend to circulate around problems before reaching final decisions.
Understanding the differences in how people from diverse backgrounds act, communicate and see the world is critical for succeeding in international markets. The Lewis model, along with the LMR personal cultural profile assessment (https://secure.cultureactive.com/index.html) provide today’s professionals with a practical map for navigating cultural boundaries. Here are some of its applications:
Marking the relative position of each country on the linear-active, multi-active or reactive scales allows business practitioners to focus on differences that really matter. The model offers a simple description of cultural variations and universals that enables them to predict behaviours and guides them on how to adapt communication and modify interactions in a variety of contexts.
Members of all three categories bring with them special characteristics that can be turned into strengths and opportunities. The awareness of employees’ cultural profiles enables companies to organise their teams by playing to those strengths, thereby maximising their potential on the global stage. The LMR questionnaire can be used for assigning candidates to international roles and projects by showing which areas of intercultural assignments align with their traits and aspirations.
What style of leadership is appropriate for linear-active, multi-active and reactive countries? Do some cultures manage better than others? Would an autocratic French manager be equally effective in harmony-minded Japan or egalitarian US as they would be in hierarchical Russia? Team leaders need to establish in the early stages of the project cycle which style of leadership will be accepted by their international teams and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Those close to the multi-active axis will be unlikely to form trusting relationships with members of linear-active or reactive groups if the activities of their cooperation consist solely in the fulfilment of tasks and contractual obligations. In relationship-oriented cultures trust ensues from emotional closeness, empathy and compassion and is built up slowly through sharing personal time. Today, if you are a manager working on the international scene you need to be aware that a firm’s negotiation or decision-making stance will not be successful in affective or consensus-oriented cultures.
About the authors:
Hanna Buławka-Burgard (PhD, Applied Linguistics) is a trainer and researcher in intercultural business communication specialising in language and intercultural development.
Ilona Hunek (PhD, Management) is a business trainer and lecturer with over 20 years of professional experience in international negotiations and diversity management.
This article draws on the original analysis and research published by R. Lewis:
Lewis, R. D. (2012) When Teams Collide. Managing the International Team Successfully, revised edition. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Lewis, R. D. (2006) When Cultures Collide. Leading Across Cultures, Third Edition. London: Nicholas Brealey International.
Lewis, R. D. (2003) The Cultural Imperative. Global Trends in the 21st Century. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Lewis, R. R. (1999) Cross-Cultural Communication: A Visual Approach. Winchester: Transcreen Publications.
Lewis, R. D. (2005) Cross Culture. The Lewis Model, revised edition. Course Booklet. Richard Lewis Communications.
Kammerich, K. and Lewis, R. D. (2013) Fish Can’t See Water. How National Culture Can Make or Break Your Corporate Strategy. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.