Since Commitment came to life in 1998, we have worked with many global clients whose staff deal with people from other countries on a daily basis. For 20 years we have observed the opportunities and lasting relationships that this diversity creates, as well as helping staff to manage the inevitable tension and discord. So what is it that makes some staff so competent and confident at engaging with other cultures, while others feel uncomfortable, frustrated and stressed?
A key success factor in making cross-country relationships work is what we call intercultural intelligence. In our model, there are a number of dimensions to intercultural intelligence:
1. Self-awareness: Knowing the cultural influences on you, your core values and assumptions, and how these could affect the way you view other cultures.
2. Awareness of others: Observing impartially without judging, exploring similarities and differences without attaching value to them. Understanding what is important to others.
3. Knowledge: Seeking out knowledge about other cultures, then sharing, testing and discussing it with others.
4. Skills: Using interpersonal skills such as great communication, active listening, building trust, managing diversity and, where needed, managing conflict.
5. Attitude: Positivity, acceptance, tolerance and patience.
We’re often asked by managers: “Tell me quickly what practical actions I should take to get better at this?”. Here’s what we recommend:
Know your own cultural lens
As we grow up, we develop a particular way of looking at the world and interpreting what we see. This is shaped by who we grew up with (such as parents, teachers), who we’re with now (which is often “people like us”), our access to the media and information, where we grew up and the country we’re in now. But we don’t always recognise the shape of this lens that we view the world through, we’re often not even aware we have a culture. Then when we use our lens to view other cultures, sometimes things get distorted, and misunderstandings and conflict arise.
So take time to reflect on the way that you, and others from your country, do things. When you work with foreign colleagues, what do they tell you that workers from your country are known for? Is this true? Don’t be offended by stereotypes, look for the grain of truth in them, and accept that truth to understand the rules that shape the way you look at things.
Don’t judge, be open-minded
Years ago, I observed a visiting senior manager and his subordinate shouting loudly at each other, out on the open plan floor. I was shocked – for a typical British person this is an unacceptable display of uncontrolled emotion. After a couple of minutes though, the matter was resolved and both people were calm. It was only in conversation later that I understood – what I had interpreted as a disrespectful loss of control was, for that culture, a perfectly normal and healthy way to air differences and find a resolution. I learned an important lesson about not judging and not attaching positive or negative value to behaviours, without understanding the context.
It’s human nature to be quick to judge, but especially dangerous to do so when working across cultures. Office behaviour that might seem strange or unacceptable to you might be perfectly normal and acceptable in my culture, and vice versa. So keep an open mind.
Observe, then check your understanding
In our experience, staff often expect cultural differences across continents. They are comfortable that there will be differences between the United States and China, for example, and curious to know more so they feel comfortable asking questions. But the very same staff are surprised to find that countries within Europe are also culturally wide apart, and that this has a significant impact in the workplace. This never really occurred to them and they have never explored it.
As an example, I worked for a client with an Italian headquarters and a UK office, where staff were struggling to work as an effective team across the two countries. The frustration of staff in both countries was threatening to boil over and derail their projects, and morale was very low. With a mixed group of UK and Italian staff, we examined 26 basic areas of daily working life, such as punctuality, taking breaks, dress code, managing your emotions, conducting meetings and conflict management.
Before we started, the group told me cheerfully, “We’re all Europeans”, “Our countries are close by”, “There’s little difference”, making me laugh with anecdotes about the “UK’s terrible food, terrible weather”. But after the exercise, after they had decided that 24 of 26 areas were different, everyone was noticeably quieter and more reflective. We spent some very productive time discussing the day-to-day impact of those differences and agreeing actions to become more attuned to the needs, expectations and ways of working of their colleagues.
In summary, don’t assume. Observe carefully, ask respectful questions and do some research. There is plenty of help out there, such as the useful guides at www.commisceo-global.com/resources/country-guides
And finally… Show empathy, flexibility, patience
Finally, if you feel that it’s sometimes difficult working across cultures, you are not alone; even people with high intercultural intelligence still encounter misunderstandings and feel frustration.
Aim to be patient, tolerant and flexible, recognising that both cultural and personal characteristics influence the way that people behave. A smile goes a long way to reduce tension, build trust and make people feel better in awkward situations. And if you make a cultural mistake, don’t panic, as most people will be tolerant – just own it, apologise, fix it and most importantly, learn from it.