In some cultures, a good meeting is one that lasts several hours and makes no decisions or recommendations.
For example, the tradition of consensus, or group agreement, is a strong part of African culture. Of course, Africa is a massive continent and not everything that holds true in Ethiopia will be a runaway success in Namibia.
By and large, though, it’s safe to say that a strong sense of group identity is common in most African societies.
Don’t try to force people from other cultures to work your way.
As in many non-Western societies, the common tendency among outsiders to impose Western style control – rigid timekeeping and sticking to a fixed agenda – is rarely successful.
The first noticeable difference is the flexible timing. In parts of Africa, a meeting scheduled for 10.00am is unlikely to start until 10.45 and a few stragglers may arrive well after that.
Even top politicians and business leaders routinely arrive late and sometimes they don’t show up at all. Any attempt to impose rigorous timekeeping will, in many organizations, be firmly rebuffed or quietly undermined.
Agendas are equally flexible and discussion of non-agenda matters may continue for some time.
Business meetings can be important social occasions too.
Delegates often like to have large quantities of food and refreshments on hand, in keeping with their tradition that meetings are an opportunity for maintaining social harmony as well as for discussing work related subjects.
If you’re planning a meeting with a multinational corporation in an African city, you’re unlikely to encounter these challenges as their routines are generally based on the Western model.
Locally owned and operated companies, however, usually follow at least some of the traditional customs.
Understand the true purpose of the meeting.
In Africa, meetings are not always where important decisions are made. Opinions are canvassed, long discussion of pros and cons of various options is encouraged and all who attend are allowed to contribute. Some junior members may be too shy to speak, especially in front of strangers.
The meeting’s main purpose is to foster group participation and consensus. However, it is usual that major decisions will be settled by a smaller, senior group either before or after the meeting.
Decisions made or contemplated are introduced as matters for discussion, so those making them can gauge the response before announcing and implementing them. Of course, any strong and credible opposition to the proposals will be taken into account before the decisions are fixed.
Westerners who attend meetings like this often wonder why they spent a couple of hours discussing a wide range of topics, some business some social, without coming to any conclusions.
As long as everyone has a had a fair hearing, Africans are more likely to say, “That was a good meeting.”
So what insights can we learn from this example?
There are several:
- Understand that in different cultures, meetings may have aims and objectives that differ slightly from your own. Plan your business discussions accordingly.
- If you’re expecting to get a firm commitment to a proposal, several discussions stretching over a few days may be required. Some will be with the decision makers, others may include a wider audience.
- African people are proud of their traditions and culture. Do not attempt to force them into doing things your way. Relax and take your lead from your hosts. If you don’t, they will consider you arrogant and won’t want to do business with you.
- If, at the end of a meeting, you’re asked to attend a lunch or dinner, accept the invitation even if it’s inconvenient. Your hosts will use such assess your personal qualities. On some occasions, especially if there’s a celebration, there will be music and dancing. You’re expected to join in unless it’s a display of traditional dancing for your benefit.
- There are rules, customs and traditions in all cultures. Before venturing into unfamiliar territory, take the time to learn about the differences you’ll find there.
If you’re already doing – or plan to do – business with countries where the culture is different from yours, read the leading guide to cross-cultural business, Prof Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map.
Never travel without it.