Integrating Cultures: R&D Leaders’ Newest Task

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 52. No. 4. July-August, 2009. pp 57-60.

The world has high hopes for research/technology leaders. You are expected to jump-start the global economy with innovations in areas such as green technology, biotechnology, stem cell cures, nanotechnology, virtualization, cloud computing, software as a service, and wireless broadband mobility. To succeed, you will probably have to integrate technical professionals from different cultures into high-performing teams. This is a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity for personal development in what you need to know and be able to do.

You may be faced with different types of cultural integration requiring different approaches. These are:

  • Integrating research and development teams from different countries in your own company.
  • Working on products and solutions with customers and partners from different companies, government agencies, or universities.
  • Organizing professionals from different disciplines to work together on solutions.
  • Leading a team with members from different national cultures

For each type, your leadership challenge is to integrate a group of people with different ways of thinking, values and emotional attitudes into an effective and efficient team with a shared purpose and identity. Let’s consider what you need to know and do with each type of cultural integration.

Twenty years ago, when ABB was formed by merging engineering organizations in Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland, I was hired to find out why distrust was undermining integration. I found that the managers in each national culture had different approaches to products, customers and managerial decision-making. And each group was highly critical of the others.

Because the Swedes were used to exporting to less-developed countries, they made products that were easy to service and resistant to extreme temperatures. Their customers respected the superior knowledge of Swedish engineers and followed their recommendations. The management team had a tradition of avoiding conflict and favoring consensual decision-making. They met in frequent offsites, sometimes with families, to cement strong relationships. Those managers not convinced of the leader’s view seldom voiced their concerns. They viewed the Germans as autocratic and unfriendly and the Swiss as unreliable and inefficient.

The Germans were used to selling complex technology to highly qualified engineers within Germany. In their decision-making process, they encouraged open debate based on facts. But when the Meister made a decision, they all marched in step. Managers did not socialize outside of work, because they believed friendships might undermine objectivity. They viewed the Swedes as inferior technologically and lacking integrity in their decision-making. However, they agreed with criticisms of the Swiss, who they saw as spoiled, having avoided the suffering of wars and benefiting from tourists drawn to their beautiful landscape.

The Swiss were used to customizing products for different cantons. As in their banking services, Swiss customization is expensive. Most managers held reserve commissions in the army. The boss at work might be a subordinate in summer maneuvers. The management culture was collegial, and it was considered wise to make sure that all managers agreed to a decision. However, sometimes a Swiss manager would make an agreement with a Swede or German and then reverse it after discussing it back home with other managers. This was the reason why the Swiss were seen as unreliable. The Swiss saw themselves as democratic and post-materialistic. They saw the Swedes as materialistic and the Germans as inflexible.

Once these differences were openly discussed and understood, relationships improved dramatically. ABB managers began to create a common corporate culture that respected differences in customer requirements. The Germans accepted a bit of Swedish relationship-building, the Swedes conceded that constructive conflict could produce better decisions, and the Swiss became more careful, making sure everyone signed on before making agreements.

Now, twenty years later, when I’ve described these national differences at meetings of global companies, they still recognize them. This is because culture changes slowly, especially when cultural values are continually reinforced by economic and social practices.

Lessons from the ABB Experience

You won’t understand the management culture in another country just by reading about that country’s culture or viewing surveys of values. There are differences in sub cultures in every country. You need to examine a business culture as a cultural anthropologist would, asking how the culture has developed as a way of adapting to its environment. You should ask managers in other countries about their customers’ needs and the products they buy. Ask how decisions are made and how managers relate to each other, both at work and outside of work. Ask about the reasons why they behave this way.

The key is asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers. Most managers are happy to answer these questions if they see that you are really interested in learning about them. They may be particularly interested, because they have never reflected on their practices, and when you ask about them, they may begin to understand themselves better. This will help them to understand others.

To understand another culture, it helps a great deal to know your own.

Working with Customers and Partners

Here is an example of partnering for solutions from my experience with ABB of Canada: managers at Cominco, the largest zinc producer in the world told ABB that instead of buying their electrical products, they wanted ABB to provide them with cheaper and cleaner electricity. To meet this request, ABB had to work interdependently with Cominco’s technical staff and integrate the two company cultures for this project.

This collaboration required agreement about values, including openness about costs and about a fair profit for ABB. It also forced ABB to bring together technical professionals from different disciplines and business units to learn together about Cominco’s needs and work together to develop solutions. These experts had their own sub-cultures and ways of thinking. Furthermore, the ABB structure of many business units with profit and loss responsibility got in the way of collaboration. What was most profitable for a business unit might not be best for the company as a whole. Integration required that top management adjust the reward system.

Companies that have been most successful at integrating professionals from different disciplines into projects have structured their organization to support this activity. Honda has been extremely effective in creating project teams to develop new cars, including design engineers, product engineers, and marketing managers. They show one way of integrating professional cultures within a company. Honda specialists learn to understand each other by spending a few months in each other’s roles. By integrating professional cultures, Honda has significantly reduced the time it takes to produce a car.

In contrast, Ford was able to integrate the various specialists to develop the Taurus in 1986 only because of an exceptional leader, Lou Viraldi, who created enough trust and mutual understanding to gain collaboration. When he left Ford, the next attempt at this kind of concurrent engineering reverted to the contentious and much longer process of moving back and forth from design to engineering to production.

Here are lessons that can be learned from experiences of integrating organizational and professional cultures.

  • When customers ask for solutions because an off-the-shelf product doesn’t meet their needs, you may have to understand their business processes and what they need to succeed. This study develops relationships and may even stimulate innovative solutions.
  • When different technical specialists work together, they need to respect differences in professional attitudes and values. The right kind of leader can facilitate interaction. The most effective network or bridge-building leaders have no formal authority. If they had such authority, they would be identified with a particular organization. Their effectiveness depends on their personality and skill in understanding people and creating trust. IBM has been especially effective in finding and developing network leaders.

Teams from Different National Cultures

A technology manager of a global project team once told me that he expected team members to have different values. He couldn’t change that. But he noted that many technical professionals all over the world play multiplayer videogames and are used to taking different roles. He said that what’s essential is to create a common purpose, clear roles and processes, and a shared team identity. This is similar to what is required of someone coaching a basketball or football team. A great coach also gets results by demanding excellence and placing people in the roles that fit their talents and personality.

However, on professional teams a great coach is able to fit the type of personality that best functions in a specific role. For example, a study of professional football players concluded that the most effective offensive linemen had strong conservative values. They wanted to protect the quarterback. In contrast, the most effective linebackers were rebels who liked to sack the quarterback as the symbol of authority. Notably, both Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who was CEO of Goldman Sachs were offensive linemen at Dartmouth College.

Understand yourself-and the People You Lead

Of course, all four kinds of cultural integration involve people, and the better you understand their thinking, values and emotions, the more effective you will be.

But first of all, you should be able to understand yourself, how you approach problems, your values and emotional attitudes. And keep in mind the Confucian wisdom that you can’t develop others if you don’t understand and work at developing yourself.

Understanding people is an art. Compare the progress made in the last five hundred years in science and technology with the progress in understanding people. Have we improved from the understanding of people in the Bible, or by Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoi, Balzac, Mark Twain and other great novelists and playwrights? Advances in psychoanalysis and psychological research have provided some knowledge of psychopathology and motivation. But they don’t substitute for the ability to observe and interpret the behavior of individuals. To understand the people you lead, you need to develop your Personality Intelligence, which combines learning concepts and sharpening your experience of emotions, a combination of head and heart.


Science and engineering provide a global language. However, I have found cultural differences in the way engineers tackle problems. In the West, we are used to breaking down problems into clearly manageable pieces that then have to be integrated. In Taiwan, engineers tend to approach problems holistically, seeking a systems solution before analyzing how the parts needed to fit.

The best of Chinese and Japanese engineers are systems thinkers. I am not sure why this is so, but my hunch is that Asian philosophy and cultural traditions play a role. Chinese philosophy is holistic, combining opposites like yin, the female principle, and yang, the male principle.

I believe that we in the West can learn from the best Asian systems thinkers. Not long ago, I visited a factory in the US that made parts for both Mercedes and Lexus. The engineering manager described the difference in the way each customer responded to quality problems. The Germans demanded a rapid solution, even if that meant working around the problem at an added cost. Toyota’s Lexus engineers came to the plant, studied the problem and proposed a systems solution that also cut costs.

Clearly, the systems approach produces better results, but even though Toyota offers workshops in systems thinking, participants from the U.S. and Europe have trouble making use of what they learn. That’s because the Toyota approach would require fundamental change in both the thinking and processes in their factories. But as global competition continues to heat up, it may pay off to do so.

When you are leading a global project or solutions team, invite each of the members to describe how each would approach the task. You may get useful ideas; you’ll certainly increase your understanding of how the members think. However, you need to make clear how you want the team to approach the task.

Values and Personality Traits

Within every culture there are differences in personality traits. Psychological research indicates there are five traits which are genetically determined:

  • Openness to experience and curiosity vs. following a routine.
  • Introversion vs. extroversion.
  • Agreeableness vs. suspiciousness.
  • Conscientiousness, sticking with a task vs. being easily distracted.
  • Emotional stability and resilience vs. instability.

Furthermore, within cultures there are differences in value-based approaches to work. For example, some people are obsessively focused on closing things perfectly. Others are more focused on helping others or providing products that will sell. A few focus on creating game changing innovations.

However, there are important cultural differences you should know in the way people relate to authority. In the U.S. and Western Europe, younger technical professionals respond negatively to autocratic or paternalistic authority. They tend to have a high opinion of themselves and want to be collaborators, not followers. They view a good leader as a value-added resource who clarifies the purpose of their work and provides clear rules of the game.

To a considerable degree, the technical professionals in Beijing share this attitude. When I asked one of them to describe a good manager, he said: “like a good basketball coach, he knows which players to put in each position. He communicates strategy and can adapt it during the game. ”

In contrast, in Taipai, technical professionals wanted a manager who was like a caring father, a teacher who gave and demanded loyalty. Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Indonesia had similar views. The difference from Beijing was that the mainland Chinese, unlike the others, had experienced the Cultural Revolution that had rejected Confucian philosophy along with the authority of parents.

Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans and Middle Easterners may still have traditional attitudes toward leadership. To find out, you can use two questions I have used:

What is your idea of a good father (or mother)?

What is your idea of a good manager?

You will find that the answers to the two questions are similar.

Emotional Attitudes

Essential to understanding people, both within your own and other cultures, is the ability to listen to what people say and the emotions they express. In his book Descartes’ Error (Penguin Books, 1994), Antonio Demasio, a distinguished neurologist, shows that emotions and reason are tightly intertwined. In so doing, he presents in modern scientific language a view that was understood in ancient wisdom that we think with our hearts as well as our heads.

In the Old Testament, King Solomon has a dream in which God asks him what he most wants and he answers “a heart that listens. ” A developed heart is the metaphor used by Greek, Muslim and Chinese philosophers not only to describe the ability to experience and understand people’s emotions, but also to know what is good, true and beautiful. The root of the word “courage” is the French “knowledge of the heart, ” experiencing and acting according to what you know is right.

Developing a Listening Heart

There are three practices to develop a heart that listens. First, practice clearing the mind and being fully present. You won’t be able to listen if you are just waiting to make a point. Nor will you be fully present if your mind is clouded by strong emotions.

Second, practice listening to yourself. We often suppress or dissociate ourselves from perceptions that are uncomfortable or inconvenient, especially about people. Listening to yourself means fully respecting yourself, your honest observations about yourself and others. You may just have an intuitive impression or doubt about someone, but you can't test it out unless you take it seriously.

Third, listen to and respond to others who need you. This does not mean being soft hearted. The heart is a muscle, and a developed heart is strong and courageous. It stays soft and vulnerable when it is overprotected and detached.

To understand and integrate cultures, you first must know yourself and your own culture. It is not easy, but the process of developing cultural competency will strengthen you, as a leader and in all your relationships.

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