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Navigating British business culture
Nearly 5 million foreigners are living and working in the UK and London is home to the European headquarters of many of the world’s largest companies. Times are changing for obvious reasons but for the moment the UK, and London in particular, is a huge social, educational, economic and professional hub for Europe and further afield. Overseas graduates and experienced managers alike come here to further their careers and gain international experience. However, even though they probably speak fluent English and are often moving to work within the same organisation, expatriates new to the UK sometimes struggle to navigate the unwritten rules of British business culture.
Here are some of the things that expatriates in the UK who have attended our Working with the British courses have told us.
‘Why don’t they say what they mean?’
‘I wish he would just tell me what he wants me to do!’ was the plaintive request from the German PA of a British manager. ‘Why do they say we should have dinner together when they don’t really mean it’ a Dutch expatriate in London recently bemoaned. British business culture is fairly task-focused but yet there is a strong desire to maintain harmony in relationships and avoid conflict at all costs which often translates into a very indirect style of communication.
In order to understand your British colleagues you need to learn to ‘read between the lines’ and appreciate our love of understatement. Recognising for example that ‘let me make a suggestion’ probably means ‘let me tell you what to do’ can be an important realisation for expatriates working in the UK.
‘My manager doesn’t have time for me’
The British management style can be quite ‘hands off’ and managers aren't always that interested in the day-to-day tasks and schedules of their direct reports. Autonomy and being proactive are highly valued traits and your manager will want to know about your results but not necessarily how you got them. British managers are also often generalists rather than specialists and so if you are a technical specialist you may find that you are left to ‘get on with it’ and trusted as an expert.
‘We even have meetings about meetings’
Meetings are very frequent in the British workplace and you will probably hear your colleagues complain about the amount of time spent in meetings. British managers are increasingly consultative and consensual and so it is seen as important to share and talk through ideas. Meetings are held to share information, to make decisions, to plan projects and events – and yes, even to plan for other meetings!
Tips for getting to grips with the British mindset
Here are some reminders for anyone working with the British who may be struggling to navigate their way through British business culture.
- Respect privacy and personal space – show an interest in your new colleagues and partners but be careful not to ask questions that could be seen as too personal – avoid questions about money, age and politics.
- Remember that relationships take time – the Brits are generally a friendly bunch but don’t expect your British colleagues to share their inner thoughts or details about their personal lives when you first meet them. Because the British can be quite private they will only start to share more personal information with you as they get to know and trust you. But play the long game and you will build long-lasting and valuable business relationships.
- Be aware that humour is used all the time in the British workplace: don’t be afraid to share a joke at work and learn how to recognise the signs that your British colleagues are joking – it doesn’t always involve smiling or laughing!
- Meetings and other appointments tend to start just on time. Time is seen as very linear in the UK so punctuality is valued but equally you will find that your British colleagues arrive in the room just a few minutes or even seconds before the meeting is due to start as they don’t want to waste their precious time waiting for others to arrive.
- Be modest about yourself and your organisation and ‘don’t blow your own trumpet’. It can be more effective to downplay your successes and it will be certainly frowned upon if you exaggerate your achievements.
Remember that as when working in any new environment it takes time to adjust. Observe your British colleagues’ behaviours, ask lots of questions and listen carefully to what’s going on around you and no doubt you will 'muddle through'!