Barriers to Intercultural Business Relationships
It’s not often that I read through full interviews on News.Az. A recent interview, however, caught my eye and managed to keep my attention the whole way through. Not because it mentions anything novel, but because Ms. Deise Leobet manages to capture very well the contrasts in business relationships in Azerbaijan and Western countries including the USA:
Although Azerbaijan and the US have a long history of doing business together, the fact that the two countries boast very different cultures, communication between them can be challenging. For instance, Azerbaijan is a very hierarchical society, in which family, tradition and religion play an important role. This differs greatly from the Americans, for whom family and hierarchy play a minor role in business environments. As a general rule, Azerbaijanis appreciate a certain amount of protocol while doing business, since they are more sensitive to status, title and other formalities.
Americans tend to adopt a direct approach in business negotiations, communicating in a very straightforward way objectives, deadlines and how they would like to see a deal happen. Although direct communication is also seen as positive in Azerbaijan, such directness may contrast with some traditions. Also, in Azerbaijan the level of directness is also dictated by whom you are speaking with.
Americans tend to work and communicate in a less formal way, while the Azerbaijani business culture tends to be more formal and politeness is not only a requirement, but part of the relationship building process.
Another barrier may be the fact that decisions in Azerbaijani companies are only effective if taken by high level executives. It is rare to have a second or even third decision maker, contrary to most American companies.
She goes on to talk more about Azerbaijan’s business relationships with other countries and ways to improve communications.
It’s no secret that the points Ms. Leobet highlights are a constant frustration for most of us Peace Corps Volunteers here. Certainly I understand that I’m not the best businessman around, but the hierarchical structure and the way communication is dictated by that structure is something that rankles my instincts for openness and collaboration. It also seems to make management fairly difficult.
Just from watching what goes on when I’m at the bank, I find this structure bringing me back to the reality that I’m in Azerbaijan. Things may seem to operate like we would expect in a Western banking organization, given our limits; yet, the relationships between workers at the bank are a stark contrast to what you would expect from an organization situated in Europe or the US. Instead of what I would think as opportunities for communication, collaboration, and learning, what I see is something that appears to be built more on fear and pride. These could be workers, otherwise extremely capable and confident employees, who are nearly paralyzed when talking to someone of higher position. Or it could be the person of higher rank refusing to acknowledge that someone in a different or lower position could offer constructive feedback up the chain. Of course, this sort of management style exists everywhere, but it is particularly striking in the setting I’m faced with. And we haven’t even approached the role gender plays in these work relationships.
In all, there are many dynamics of office life which people from all countries would find familiar. Observing from an American business perspective is an excellent lens to peer at office relationships and see how the Azerbaijani differs from the American interactions. And I can assure you that the cultural differences do not always make the American viewer feel very comfortable.