3 tips for understanding Australian business culture

You’ve just arrived in Australia on assignment.  You’ve read a few books on Australian business culture. You are confident that you understand enough to get you by. Within a few days of being there, you realise that there is still a lot to learn.

Here are some tips to help you understand Australian business culture on a deeper level.

1. Relate your daily experiences to cultural theory

A few weeks ago, one client talked about how she and her Australian colleagues differed on how they started the work day. When she got to her desk, she turned on her computer and immediately started working.  She looked around the office. It was 9:00am and most of her colleagues weren’t even seated at their desks! They were standing near their desks chatting about the latest news, sports results and who got voted off on Survivor last night.  It was 9:20am by the time they were seated at their desks.

My client couldn’t relate to this at first. She said she was here to work not ‘chit chat’.  I explained to her that this morning chit chat was quite important for building relationships in Australian business culture.   Later on, my client told me that relating her experience to Australian relationship building helped her not only understand why she was frustrated, it somehow made her more willing to adapt. The last time I checked, my client was engaging in the morning chit chat ritual as well.

Relating cultural theory to your experiences can be a powerful learning tool. It helps you understand why some cultures are more task oriented and why others prefer focusing on relationships first.  When you relate cultural theory to your own experiences, it highlights the differences between your cultural behaviour and that of the locals, and also what you need to do to bridge the cultural gap.

2. Understand the role context plays in the culture

Culture is more complex than we think.  Context can determine which value gets expressed in a culture and which ones do not.  Traditional cultural theory suggests that Australian business culture tends to be more individualistic and yet as you get deeper into the culture, you will notice that this is not always true.  In the workplace, for example, a group focus seems to be more important than an individual focus.  Expressing your individuality too much in the workplace can put you at odds with the group and disrupt team harmony.  One client told me how working late and proposing major changes actually hurt her relationships in the beginning because she challenged the system.  This does not mean that the individual is not important. Everyone has their own individual contribution to the team and everyone is accountable for their individual performance.

3. Focus on the individual

Cultural theory teaches us ‘sophisticated cultural stereotypes’ – research based evidence explains the values, beliefs and customs that people follow in a culture. It explains why people follow these stereotypes but it does not explain the people who don’t follow them. When I compared myself to my home country of Canada, I can’t say that I follow my country’s sophisticated stereotypes. Why? It’s because we are all individuals, with different experiences, different subcultures and a set of values and beliefs that may be different from our own national culture.

The Australian business culture has become quite diverse over the last 10 years. A number of your colleagues may carry with them two or more national cultures, and that’s why they don’t neatly fit the Australian sophisticated stereotype. Still, you should learn Australian business culture because people do follow its rules, beliefs and customs from time to time. As much as people are individuals and want to express their individuality, they also want to adopt the values and customs of the Australian workplace.  Adapting to Australian business culture helps us fit in and makes us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Have you encountered the Australian business culture first hand? What are your experiences? What advice would you give to someone relocating to Australia for business? Share your comments on our Facebook page.



About the Author

Tom Frengos

Tom Frengos is a Human Potential Coach and Facilitator working in Sydney Australia. Tom has also published a book titled Cross Cultural Chameleons and Tall Poppies: How We Really Live & Work With Culture. He is currently delivering cross cultural training courses based on the principles from that book.

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