Identifying When Entrepreneurial Cultures Clash and Knowing How to Tackle Them Head-On
Understanding the contrasting Israeli and American styles of execution
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In today's world of international collaboration, cultural divides are to be expected. Sometimes the cultural differences are subtle, and have very little effect on the daily work, but other times, the differences are relatively sharp--and can be better characterized as a cultural chasm--and prove to be an obstacle to efficient collaboration.
One of the starkest cultural divides is between those who celebrate "soft skills" and those who dismiss them. I was recently reminded of the soft-skill divide when I had an opportunity to observe the operation of an entrepreneurial firm with offices in New York and Tel Aviv. They were trying to collaborate on an innovation, and their differences around the notion of soft skills was apparent. In this organization, the Israelis showed some resistance to soft skills where the Americans had a more positive inclination toward the soft-skill mindset. While this is not meant to be a generalization (i.e., there are plenty of Israeli firms and leaders who embrace soft skills and numerous American entrepreneurs who see soft skills as window dressing), the divide was clear in this instance.
Israelis, in this organization, tend to have a narrow, focused notion of time. The intention is to move the agenda ahead as quickly as possible. This particular notion of time and the fear of losing time translates into a relatively blunt, declarative, and often mildly authoritarian language. As a result, on the corporate level, anything that slows forward movement or diverges from a directive vocabulary is thought to be inefficient. In this context, the Israeli side of the organization disproportionately dismisses facilitative leadership vocabulary as endorsement of soft skills. For them, taking the time to engage in soft skills of listening, questioning, and giving feedback is not a "productive," metrics-driven activity. Any time spent in activities not essential to the mission is often regarded as a loss or a waste.
The skepticism surrounding soft skills is part and parcel of the Israeli entrepreneurial culture and can be summarized by the Hebrew expression, "tachlis," which loosely translated means, "get down to brass tacks." Even in the face of evidence that bounded patience, focused listening, delivering feedback, and having coaching conversations enhances output, as measured by product development and customer service satisfaction, the "tachlis" mindset is cynical of the value of these types of soft skills.
The American side of this organization is a little more self-reflective, more conflict adverse, and, overall, more facilitative, which on the surface is incongruent with the Israeli mindset. While the leaders may not totally embrace soft skills, they recognize their value.
The problem is how these cultural differences in the orientation of soft skills are rendered in the workplace. Culture translates into language, language encompasses not only the words themselves but also gestures and specific behaviors related to feedback, dialogue, listening, and questioning. The Israelis and Americans have developed two different leadership and managerial styles. Their contrasting approaches to giving feedback, holding group discussions, and expressing satisfaction/dissatisfaction began to tear the organization apart. Having organizational unity in mind, the leaders are now coming to grips with the challenge of finding a middle ground and developing a vocabulary that is both facilitative and directive. They recognize that they have to deliberately cultivate a mindset that balances the natural directive Israeli tendency with the more American facilitative tendency.
Leaders in entrepreneurial organizations cannot afford to allow cultural differences to become obstacles that stand in the way of goal achievement. This implies that they will do a fair amount of zig-zagging between the extremes as they seek to find the cultural middle ground. It also means finding the right tone, the right vocabulary that allows both sides of the cultural divide to be comfortable with the message they're sending.