The American Workplace

The questions below express the real concerns of the manager, executive, or team leader, who has been offered a position in the company in the US. He or she is here to accomplish a specific task or lend their expertise to a project. Most worry that they will not perform up to expectations in the workplace, especially if they are high flyers in their home country. Or, that they will have little influence and impact on the project, on their boss, or in their team.

The three questions I hear most often are:

  1. How do I make a presentation in the US? How does it differ from how I would do it at home?
  2. How do I get along with an American boss?
  3. How do I make friends with the other team members and become a contributor?

These are most likely not too different than questions an American would ask. The added complexity is one of culture. We know from extensive data analysis by the Management Research Group on country differences in Leadership Practices, that leadership behaviors significantly differ all over the world.

There are some commonalities, though, among the leaders coming from a ‘cluster’ of countries. For example, managers and leaders coming from the Anglo-Saxon countries have more leadership practices in common as do those from countries in Asia.

Making a Presentation

Communication and language are direct in the US and it is a ‘low-context’ culture. There is never an assumption that everyone in the room knows anything about the subject you will be talking about. Although Americans will not hesitate to tell you what they think and express their emotions quite readily, body language is minimal.

What does this tell us, then, about organizing a presentation?


Keep the slides simple, with minimal language. People are there to listen to you and you are the expert on the subject. Don’t read from the slides and don’t crowd them with loads of charts, diagrams, data, etc. that are hard to read. Speak directly to your audience about the data. The exception might be when making a presentation to a group of scientists, where the data is the presentation.

A good rule is to tell people what you will tell them (what’s the purpose of your talk, what are 2 or 3 points you want them to walk away with), tell it to them, and then tell them what you told them. Simple is good. Remember, people only remember about 30% of what they hear, which is why visuals should reinforce your points, not overwhelm them. When you introduce the subject, summarize the background of the issue (remember, this is a low context culture). Leave time at the end of the presentation for questions. You can also allow questions and comments during the presentation if you are comfortable with that.

Getting Along with an American Boss

American bosses are not father-figures, nor are they patriarchal. They are there to achieve results and the pressure is on. They are the boss because they can produce and not because (for the most part) they are the cousin of a Senior VP. Nepotism does occur in the US despite its being an achievement–based work culture, but it is not that frequent in large publicly traded organizations.

Your boss’ individual leadership style will play just as an important role in your relationship as his or her American culture.


Being a task-based work culture as opposed to one where relationships are developed before the tasks are assigned, your worth to your boss will depend on how well you carry out an assigned task. You need to clarify his expectations of your performance. If there is a deadline, keep it; or, have a very good reason for requesting an extension. Be frank – if the work can or cannot be completed in the specified period, communicate directly (there it is again, another cultural attribute) what is realistic.

If you have ideas and opinions, you will be more highly regarded if you speak up. The exception might be a boss who is a narcissist. That has to do with his or her personality and nothing to do with culture.

Being an Accepted Team Member

The foundation of good teamwork is trust. However, trust is difficult to establish when people are different from one another. We often see ‘others’ as threatening. The amygdala kicks in and the reaction to strangers is ‘fight or flight.’ The rational part of the brain gets flooded with stress chemicals and makes reasoning in the face of the unknown impossible.

Neuroscience tells us a lot about human behavior. Cultural differences also complicate matters.

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The good news is that Americans have a big public space. They form relationships easily. The bad news is, they let them go just as easily. Relationships tend to be more superficial in the New World. Trompenaars says that the American drive Westward where families settled, picked up stakes, and then resettled further West explains the ease with which Americans make friends and unmake them. That may or may not be the case. In any event, and especially if you come from a culture where your public space is small and your private space is large, you may have to get accustomed to the insincerity of longer-term relationships in the US.

Use your relationship building skills to reach out to other team members and become known. Talk about how you contributed to a team back home and that you are eager to get up to speed with the team’s work. Tell people what you can contribute. Find opportunities to have informal discussions such as joining people for lunch, having a meeting over a coffee in the canteen, or Skyping with other, remote team members outside the formal calls.

What you want to do is to lower the threat level so that other team members begin to establish trusting relationships with you.

In Conclusion . . .

A little cross cultural knowledge goes a long way. Did you know that over 40% of expat assignments fail and are terminated early because the executive and/or his family find it too difficult to integrate into the new job and the new culture? They are ignorant of the differences and the mistakes they make are costly and stressful. Daily living can become unbearable and the work assignment is set up for failure.

Superficially, with the ease of communications and travel due to technology, there is an assumption that globalization has brought about standardization and, with it, ‘sameness’ across cultures. This is not true. What drives our behavior are the values, beliefs, and national identities which are not apparent on the surface. We need to take the time and trouble to discover our own cultural assumptions so that we can become aware of others. Culture matters.

Ace-up Global Executive & Leadership Coach Marion EstienneMarion is an expert in international business, global mindset, and cross-cultural leadership changes. She develops talent that needs to meet the demands of the global marketplace. Not only does she develop others to work successfully in the international environment, but she also has done business herself as an international consultant, trainer and coach. Marion is an ICF certified Executive Coach from the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara.

Learn more about Marion