International communication is a daily reality for every professional these days.
Doing business overseas is the default for most, and even if your business is mainly local, you most likely work with people from many different cultural backgrounds. Our children will work in ‘interconnected, office-less networks of online professionals.’ Modern enterprises should prepare for this: in the future knowledge will be shared instantly across the world, and talents will reside anywhere.
In the coming years, the importance of cross-cultural effectiveness increases. So, anyone who is involved with global suppliers, customers or partners will encounter cultural differences. Do you let these differences get in the way of a good operational result, or do you make sure they provide a positive contribution to your business
Simple measures can be taken to transform cultural differences from barriers to success into sources of creativity and inspiration. To do so, a manager needs two vital things: solid knowledge about other cultures, and the willingness and ability to look into the mirror and reflect on the effect of his behavior.
Cross-cultural effectiveness and diversity
When facing cross-cultural problems, the first step is to build up a deep understanding of how the other culture(s) work. It is not enough to learn some facts about the other culture and stop there. Still, this is how most culture trainings are set up. You will learn that “Indians are more chaotic; Germans are more structured.” It is crucial however to go a step deeper and study what the essential cultural differences are, why they play up at work, how they manifest themselves, and what different ways there are to deal with the same issue. The model you use for your study is irrelevant: whether Hofstede’s or Trompenaars’ dimensions of culture, Hall’s communication model or Lewis’ ‘When Cultures Collide’ framework. Erin Meyers culture map is a valuable addition to the field: very practical and to-the-point. The model I use is a mix, called ‘The Pragmatic Approach to Culture.’
These deep insights need to be complemented with developing the proper attitude to cross-cultural effectiveness. For this, it is essential to become aware of 3 elements of mindset and deal with them:
Distorted world image
We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world through our own filtered perception of reality. When looking at other cultures and labeling the behaviors of others, it is important to realize that the labels you use for their behavior (‘weird,’ ‘superficial,’ ‘rude’) are just that: labels. They are subjective and do not say much about the reality of the other person. They are a reflection of who you are: your assumptions and your attitudes.
In cross-cultural workshops, participants should discover how others perceive them. They should reflect on their values and assumptions when judging other behaviors. And learn to describe behaviors in a completely objective and neutral way, withholding any judgment. This is the key to see cross-cultural misunderstandings as a clash of two different views on reality, rather than a game of ‘who is right and who is wrong.’
The intention behind perception
Indians are chaotic. This is a perception. However, a more accurate statement is to say that they do things that others – who are more structured and organized – interpret as chaotic. So, when describing another culture with a negative label, it is important to ask ourselves: What is the positive intention behind the behavior that I call ‘chaotic’? Then you find out that Indians value to respond flexibly to new requests and try to accommodate any new request within the available time frame. Exactly, they are very flexible! The positive intention of the Indians is to be flexible. This is perceived by many as ‘chaotic.’
In workshops on cultural differences, I constantly rephrase our perceptions of other cultures in line with these positive intentions. Such that participants embrace this attitude and start to see the world as one of positive intentions that can be wrongly interpreted. The effect is often a more significant understanding and appreciation of other cultures, and a new and fresh way of looking at interpersonal differences.
Finally, we make people see that although we think we are unbiased and value another point of view, unconsciously we often don’t. In the end, we believe we do things better than they do. We do not admit this (“We value the unique way-of-working of all sites…”), but we still force the other sites into our model (“… however, we still want to standardize across the sites and adopt one way of working.” We need to become aware that in spite of good intentions, we tend to see ourselves as superior to others. And even when rationally we say we value the Indian team, emotionally we feel that we are better at structuring software than they are.
In workshops, we teach teams to engage in high-quality conversations across these sites. This involves techniques to suspend judgment and first increase our understanding. We do exercises around ‘deep listening with the intention to understand’ (as opposed to ‘superficial listening with the intention to respond’). When our intention is not to convince or to respond but to learn, the real value of diverse approaches can be seen. Through this dialogue, you can start to find answers to how you are going to work. This, however, does not have to become a continuous democratic process. It can still be to-the-point and focused on quickly finding ‘the best way to work together.’