January 27, 2023

Founders, here's how to avoid costly mistakes when working across cultures

And why ignoring differences can wreck a business

Zed Tarar

4 min read

Successful startups need to leverage talent wherever they can find it and are increasingly turning to geographically distributed teams. And even when co-located, tech talent tends to be multinational. So whether you’re hiring outside your home market or scaling across Europe, your need to understand national cultures to communicate effectively and work through differences. Failing to recognise these differences will waste time and money. 

As a diplomat, I’ve worked in five countries, hashed out differences over tea in Abu Dhabi, debated strategy in Italian cafes and laboured over details in British pubs. Those experiences taught me that we need to internalise national differences in our approach to teamwork and course-correct when we fail to get our message across. 

If you’re a founder leading a team that looks like it’s straight out of the United Nations, here are my top three pieces of advice to keep your organisation from making costly mistakes.


When in doubt, ask

The fundamental question that underpins any attempt to understand a different national work culture is “how do they get things done over there?” This sounds basic, but sometimes the basics are what matters. 

I failed to learn this lesson early in my career. It was 2010 and I was in my late twenties in the Persian Gulf, shepherding a top US official through Abu Dhabi, when I scheduled our first meeting at 8am. As anyone who has spent time in desert cultures will tell you, few locals are up and about that early. We showed up to the ministry to find it empty, lights off, cleaning crew prepping the office for the day. Don’t be like I was.

When you’re collaborating across cultures, always ask:

  • How does work get done? 
  • What does the daily rhythm look like? 
  • Is teamwork valued above individual contributions? 

Separate the explicit from the implicit

Western cultures tend to be more direct in their communication styles, though this varies even within Europe (British understatement versus Dutch directness, for example). Nonetheless, sometimes “yes” in other cultures doesn’t mean yes. 

In Japan, for example, you may hear “chotto” followed by a long pause. Literally translated, it means “a little”, the abbreviated form of “a little inconvenient”, or more accurately, whatever you’re proposing isn’t going to happen. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I once witnessed a German colleague bluntly say to an international committee, “it seems we are ill-prepared for this conversation” — ruthless honesty that prompted pin-drop silence for a good minute. 

To work through differences in communication style, make the embedded assumptions explicit. When managing a multicultural team: 

  • Make sure everyone understands the national differences in communication style. 
  • Ask your team how they tend to communicate and highlight national differences. 
  • Make sure you have an effective communication strategy in place to prevent costly mistakes. Approach decisions and tradeoffs intentionally; for example, you can either promote candour and frankness or decide you’ll let the prevailing national culture of subtlety and subtext flow naturally, but you can’t do both. Each has its trade-offs. 

Understand how status and hierarchy work

Hierarchy in English-speaking cultures tends to be informal, especially in startups. You would never expect your executive team to address you as “Ms. CEO madam” or another honorific, yet many cultures do just that: I remember the first time I heard an Italian colleague refer to his boss as “direttore” instead of by name. 

You can insist on informality and attempt to flatten a culture that tends to look for clear hierarchies, but you will fail. Instead, for example, acknowledge that your leadership team in Bangalore will expect their subordinates to retain the culturally appropriate degree of respect. Trying to implement a virtual “open door policy” where the junior-most employee in Bangalore can reach the CEO directly will only cause headaches and likely backfire. That doesn’t mean you need to abandon your management style, but it does mean bending it to fit with local norms.

Counter to prevailing wisdom, Americans too are hierarchical, though our national myths tend to emphasise egalitarianism while promoting the “flatness” of our organisations. When dealing with a US-based VC, for example, understanding the difference between a superficial lack of hierarchy and true decision-making authority is key. Not all partners carry equal weight, and there is little standardisation of titles across firms. 

When designing your startup’s approach to status and hierarchy:

  • Take the time to address national differences and explain the rationale behind your ethos. For example, if you want to cultivate an “open door” atmosphere where employees are encouraged to speak truth to power, you must explain why that matters, and you should address why that might be simple for your German COO and unnatural for your Japanese head of sales. 
  • Understand that there is only so much you can override a national cultural norm — at some point, you’ll need to bend to the prevailing winds.  

If you have distributed teams with a mix of nationalities, consider using a more in-depth process to map those cultural differences. Taking the time early on to get this right will save time and make your life easier as your startup grows.

Zed Tarar is a career member of the US foreign service, currently serving in London. 

Disclaimer: While Zed Tarar is a career US diplomat, the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the US government.


Zed Tarar

Zed Tarar advises startups and holds an MBA from London Business School, where he specialises in the intersection of technology and policy. He has worked in five countries as a US diplomat.