Understanding how to communicate across cultures is an absolutely indispensable skill.
Do you work with colleagues and customers from around the world whether face to face, by mail or tele-conferencing? The answer is probably ‘yes’ as more and more of us need to connect and work well with a whole range of people from different cultures – whether that be at home or overseas.
Whether they’re a colleague, a client, or a supplier being able to communicate, build trust, gain commitment and deliver are key to success for us all. Being able to do that across cultures can be more challenging but essential to business success.
At Greenbank we frequently work with global clients and deliver training solutions in a wide range of countries – so we know that it is great for business! It is also challenging – but rewarding to do so. Landing in a new country and not being sure of how to navigate your way through a maze of different expectations, rules and norms can be bewildering.
But those cultural differences can also be found closer to home with teams often being made up with people from a wide range of backgrounds or you may be working in a business whose HQ is in a different part of the world or you need to work well with an off-shore Shared Service Centre.
Whatever your current or future role the ability to communicate and work across cultures has become a core competence –perhaps the difference between success and failure.
Circumnavigating the Globe
To be successful in a diverse, global business world we need to have a map to help us to understand the x-cultural world we live in. There are a lot of interesting books out there to help us with this – whether they are culture specific such as ‘Don’t they Know it’s Friday’ by Jeremy Williams which I still remember reading before starting a big project in the Emirates. It helped me to avoid most – in not all the cultural mistakes I made!
Others offer robust models to better understand different cultural profiles – where countries might be similar or different from one another giving a framework to increase understanding and how to adapt behaviour.
Amongst this group my favourite book is by INSEAD Professor Erin Meyer. Her book ‘The Culture Map’ explains with some great examples how to use the eight scales of the “culture map” to navigate international business and how to use them to understand how people communicate, give feedback, persuade, lead, decide, trust, disagree and manage time. I especially like her story of asking questions to a group of Japanese managers – and her tips really worked when I delivered a programme there last year. Check out this very short YouTube clip to hear about the book www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUwFN3lzRFo
If on the other hand you are short on time there is an excellent – and free – questionnaire based on the book which you can complete and get a personal report on your own profile compared to your national culture. http://erinmeyer.com/tools/self-assessment-questionnaire-2/
Makes for interesting reading – apparently, I’m not very British!
Based on our reading and often hard-won experience of working internationally here are our top 7 things to remember when working X-culturally:
Be sincerely curious
Keep an open mind and explore the culture of others whether it be by sharing food together, reading up on local history, or checking out current news stories- both in your own press and in theirs – the stories might be very different!
When working with multi-cultural teams I often ask each cultural group to share a few things from their culture such as
- How would you greet a business colleague? Let them demonstrate it too rather than just explain it in words
- How would you win someone’s respect and credibility in your culture?
- What would be a business taboo in your culture?
The outcomes can be surprising – and you may not find them in any book. For instance, I was told by one group that a business no – no in Vietnam would be to forget a client’s birthday and fail to send them a gift, whereas in Sweden it was eating dinner with only a fork!
Admit that you don’t know
Assume that there will be differences, rather than similarities. I was surprised when preparing for a large meeting in Japan that I was sitting on the wrong side of the room as a visitor – thankfully my local colleagues corrected me in time.
Knowing that we don’t know everything, that a situation does not make immediate sense, that our assumptions may be wrong is part of the process of becoming culturally aware. So, ask for help and guidance – it will save potential embarrassment and shows that you are open-minded.
Use questions to delve beneath the surface and to understand the motivation and reasoning behind an action rather than just assuming. Seek more information so that you have in depth understanding before moving to evaluation. A good question is to ask why a certain approach works well for the other person. There is often a good reason why it works in their culture – and could be transferred equally successfully elsewhere.
Put yourself in to the other person’s shoes – assume their perspective first to understand another person or group. Really listen to what others are saying and try to discover the feelings behind the facts. Through empathy we can also learn of how other people would like to be treated by us.
Systematically check your own assumptions
Ask colleagues for feedback and constantly check your assumptions to make sure that you clearly understand the situation. For example, send drafts over to trusted colleagues to check out how it will land with others. Check out how HQ directives might work in other countries before assuming that they will automatically lead to improvements in performance.
Be prepared to live with ambiguity
The more complicated and uncertain life is, the more we are tempted to seek control. Start from an assumption that other people are as resourceful as you are and that their way will add value to what you know. Beware of assuming there is ever only one way of doing things! Or that what worked last year will work in the future.
As a team or as a business find ways of sharing the cultures of your diverse workforce. Diversity can bring increased innovation and richer problem solving. It can be essential for service/product development by bringing a far better understanding of clients and local market needs.
Greenbank work extensively with leaders and their teams to help them work more effectively cross-culturally. To find out how we could help you please feel free to contact me at Judith@greenbankltd.com
Written by Judith Hirst, Greenbank’s Head of Leadership Development