“Most of my important lessons about life have come from recognizing how others from a different culture view things.” — Edgar H. Schein
As the world gets more connected and businesses are no longer strictly local, neither will be the workforce. Right now, over 230 Million workers are expatriates, or roughly 3.3% of the world’s population. Companies with global ambitions benefit from an international talent pool, as it allows them to broaden their views and incorporate different ideas to the way the business is run.
While knowing that, one would think corporate leaders the world over have mastered what some call “cross cultural management” or “cultural fluency” skills. The ability to comprehend, empathize and navigate through cultural differences is essential to building trust. Trust itself has been linked with financial performance. The path is clear then: Companies hire more expats, managers hone cross cultural management skills, trust is built and everybody wins! Sounds fairly straight forward, right?
Well, the reality is things are a little bit more complicated than that.
For example, we normally judge our work interactions through our lenses, imbued with our own cultural bias. Furthermore, when we are aware of potential cultural clashes, we risk relying too much on stereotypes – which in many cases aren’t that helpful and will only bring in more communication noise.
So how do we avoid these traps and become more aware of cultural differences? How can we look at it not as a source of conflicts and additional layers of complexity, but as a source of innovation, outside-of-the-box thinking and productivity?
Learn by Observing
Cross Cultural relationships isn’t a modern invention. People have been migrating and connecting with other cultures since humans’ early days. In academia, Anthropologists have long honed their observational skills with the purpose of comprehending others on a detailed level. To do so, they try to question themselves from the perspective of the person of that particular culture.
This shift helps you to avoid thinking in an “us vs. them” way when it comes to behaviors you don’t particularly like. Instead, you should focus more on understanding the logic behind them, what leads them to think the way they do. This can only be done by listening actively and attempting to avoid judgements.
Therefore, avoid dismissing patterns that, from your cultural perspective, may seem irrational or confusing and instead engage in observing it more attently. Ask questions when things don’t seem to make sense to you. Even if it may slow down your process early on, it will be worth it in the long run.
Another key aspect of cross cultural management is to be ready to accept that maybe your work or management style may not be suitable to your subordinates. Assuming that others should always adapt to you is a serious mistake from a leadership perspective. This applies to both, if you are a foreign leader coming into a different culture or if you are leading a cross cultural team in your homeland.
It does not mean you should completely let go of what is essential to you/your culture, but rather search for the commonalities and/or identify behaviors the team appreciates in themselves, try incorporating them. For example, in some cultures it’s considered rude if you start a meeting going straight into business, skipping over a few minutes of casual conversation. To some of them, it comes across as inconsiderate of the human aspect of the professional.
If that’s the case in your team, then one way to adapt your leadership style without coming across as superficial would be to start weekly meetings asking people to talk briefly about the best thing that happened to them during the week inside or outside of work. You might also get to know more about your team on a personal level, understanding what drives them and makes them excited about life in general.
Become Aware of Yourself
One of the biggest challenges to cross cultural management is to keep your own biases in check. This may not come naturally, but there are multiple approaches to reach it.
When a team member reacts in a way you do not expect, to what would be a normal communication according to your perspective, take a moment to step back and ask yourself why that happened. Even better, ask the team member directly, if you are comfortable enough to do so. Listen attentively to what they say: sometimes how a message is perceived is more important than the message itself.
Another approach is to rely on a third party who may be more “culturally fluent” than yourself to keep you in check. It could be another team member, a mentor outside the organization or someone else entirely. Most importantly, it needs to be someone whom you trust to analyze your patterns and point out to you where the blind spots may be.
We are all humans
Although awareness to identify and work with cross cultural differences is very important, don’t lose sight of some basic values which are appreciated by any person. Psychology dictates we are all moved by six basic emotions (some even say four). Understanding what triggers them is key, and there are a few values which we can all appreciate and therefore can serve as a bridge between cross cultural gaps, such as honesty, respect, kindness…
Displaying these from the get go can ease your way through cross cultural challenges early on. Mistakes will be seen as genuine and not as attempts to undermine or disregard one’s background, and respect ensures that even if you don’t see eye to eye on things, there is a real sense of appreciation for the other’s perspective.