Three steps to increase your cross-cultural impact

How do you deal with a team that’s distributed all over the world, in different time-zones and with different habits and norms? How do you organize a business with suppliers, customers and partners that reside in different regions? And how do you work more effectively with your contacts in France, the UK, Israël, Brazil or Russia?

These questions form the heart of my work. I’ve been active in this specialism now for 7 years, and start to see a common approach to all cross-cultural (and other kind of) assignments I get. The number 3 plays a central role.

There’s 3 phases you need to go through when increasing your cross-cultural effectiveness:shutterstock_1893187

  1. Understand the impact you have on others. Every successful attempt to improve communication and influencing starts with knowing the impact you have on your environment. The impression you leave with others is determined by your personality and your culture. You need to look into the mirror, and understand the effect you have on others.
  2. Know the other party. You will have to understand the other person you deal with. And also for this person, his acting is based on personality and culture. You will need the skill to understand the personality of the other person, and you will need some knowledge and understanding about her culture.
  3. Make a conscious choice. Only when you know your impact on others, and the personality and culture of the people you work with, will you be able to make a conscious choice. Adjust your behavior to the culture of the other person? Or stay with your own culture, and work from there as you are convinced this yields better results? Also fine, as long as it is a conscious choice and not a reflex.

These 3 steps are the heart of any leadership development program I set up, and of any cross-cultural training I design. These steps are interrelated, and omitting one of the steps will yield an ineffective program.

When you only focus on step 1, you will not have sufficient eye for the other culture and you will lack the ability to adjust. You believe that your approach is the best, regardless of who you interact with. This is the most common difficulty for many managers. When reading this they will deny, and claim that their experience working with other cultures has learned them to adjust. Reality is that when the pressure is on, they go back to old behaviors and get annoyed: “The Indians don’t work like we do. They should learn from us!”.

When you only focus on step 2, you learn the do’s and dont’s of another culture, without examining your own culture and the impact of your behavior on others. The mistake of many intercultural awareness trainings, that unfortunately only focus on intercultural “awareness” rather than ”effectiveness”. Because although you know Japanese bow, Germans are strict and Indians miss deadlines, you will not be effective because you forget your own culture has impact as well. Japanese may be surprised you don’t bow, Germans may be surprised by your reckless flexibility and Indians may be surprised by your linear and rigid view of time.

Step 3 is about making conscious choices. This can only be done based on knowledge and understanding of yourself and others. What tends to get forgotten in many training initiatives is that this conscious choice should be made based on adequate information. Based on these insights – and based on your own goals in a given situation – you can decide on the best approach. And the best approach is certainly not always to adjust to the other culture. Your own performance management process might be the one you push through, regardless of cultural limitations. You can do this very well, as long as you know the impact of the culture in which the framework was made (step 1) and you know how all affected entities will perceive the new process (step 2).


The above 3 steps became the 3 parts of my book Managing Through a Mirror, and of the new book The International Manager that will be published across the globe this year. Part 1 is about interpersonal communication: the way you communicate verbally and non-verbally, your personality, and the impact of all of this on the people you work with. Part 2 deals with the other culture: what should you know when working with people from Austria, Canada, Argentina, Jordan or Belgium? And part 3 deals with applying that in business. When managing teams, when managing performance, when managing change and when negotiating, you need to make conscious choices: do I adjust to what the other person expects from me (based on his personality or culture), or do I stick with what I believe is the right way?
Three steps that I love because they are so simple and straightforward, yet so often ignored or forgotten.

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