Think:Act Magazine “Geopolitics 2.0”
Translating cultural differences for the better
How to implement cultural awareness in the workplace
by Bennett Voyles
Clouds of smoke. Broken windows. Chanting picketers. It was hard to believe the chaotic images on the television had anything to do with you. But the tight-lipped reporter confirmed the news: Your factory was on fire. But could the clash at the plant have been avoided? Maybe not. Protests against foreign companies in your sector had been building for months and your company's brand recognition made it an obvious target.
But what if you had listened to the protestors before the boycott grew? Or if you had asked headquarters for backup earlier? This imagined scenario is all too believable as the world changes from an outward-looking global trading playground to a place full of fenced up borders and national interests. And as the business demands that your organization increasingly work across national borders, navigating the nuances of different cultures becomes all the more complicated. And one reason for that is that in many places around the world, people are increasingly skeptical of the benefits of international trade.
A 2020 survey, conducted even before the spread of Covid-19 boosted xenophobia in many markets, found the numbers of people who see international trade as a force for good had slipped dramatically since 2018. In many countries, including some that have arguably benefited hugely from global exports – India, Canada, France, Japan, Germany and Mexico – more and more people see international trade as a negative force in the world, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung research.
Although enthusiasm for globalization may be shrinking, a lot of business is still being done far from your backyard. If you have foreign customers, an overseas assignment or need to manage a team that works six time zones away, what do you need to know about the people you're working with to work with them? How should you communicate? And how do you improve the odds that this assignment is a stepping stone for your career, not a stumbling block?
1. Don’t assume you know what you’re doing.
"You can't assume that the words you now use and the behaviors that you exhibit in your meetings at home are automatically usable in your new environment," warns Edward Hess, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, and author of Hyper Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change.
A former senior executive at Warburg Paribas Becker and other firms, Hess says he learned over the course of 12 foreign engagements that it paid to do some research about a new place before you arrive. "Talk with colleagues who have visited the country and seek their advice on how to behave," advises Hess. "What would be taken as a big faux pas? If there are people who were transferred from your home base to the new country, talk with them about how they built trusting relationships with their foreign colleagues."
2. Do your homework.
"I always dive in" is the advice Eric Rubin, the former United States Ambassador to Bulgaria and a 35-year veteran of the US Foreign Service and president of the US Foreign Service Association in Washington, D.C, has to offer. "I do a ton of reading and I talk to people. Not everybody does that, but I think that's the right way. First of all, you arrive knowing a lot more. And second, if you really get excited and get into it, it's going to be a better experience."
US foreign service officers typically study a language full-time for between six months and two years before being sent to a post. Before his posting in Bulgaria, for instance, Rubin studied Bulgarian for six months – being a Ukrainian and Russian speaker, he was quick to pick up a third Slavic language – and he watched the Bulgarian evening news. "That was really good because it got my ear accustomed to what the language sounds like on television, but also, they talk really fast, so it was a good challenge."
3. Get your Fingerspitzengefühl on.
But what about getting to know not a country, but a new organization? What's the best way to handle that? "I think my answer is two words: relentless curiosity," says David Omand , who has served at both the British Government Communications Headquarters and the Home Office as Permanent Secretary. You don't know the culture and the environment, so you have to find that out. And the only way you can do that is by asking."
Omand, who is also the author of How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence, adds: "There's a wonderful German word, Fingerspitzengefühl, which is feeling with your fingertips. I was introduced to this word by one of my colleagues who served in the British army on the Rhine. They used it for the good military commander's sense of the territory – you just get this feel with your fingertips that tells you whether 'this looks okay' or 'this isn't right.' I think senior executives develop this – they can go into a plant or factory or, in the case of a civil service, one of these case-working factories where the staff are processing files on individuals and very quickly get that feel … Businessman I've known have said it's exactly the same when you walk into a factory or production line ... is there swarf on the ground that's not cleaned up? Go into the toilets – what do they smell like? It's olfactory. It's little things like that that give you a sense of, this is well run, these people know what they're doing."
4. Get to know your team.
Find out what you can about your colleagues' personal life, suggests Prasad Kaipa, an advisor, researcher and leadership coach based in Campbell, CA, and the co-author of From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom. "You need to get into their private life to make sure there is meaning, there is a connection, there is engagement and there is interest. If these are not integrated into the work, you might get productivity, but it will be a dull kind of productivity," he says.
5. Speak frankly – most of the time.
Of course, as a leader, you can't just be an anthropologist. If your assignment requires leading an unfamiliar group, not only will you have to understand its members, they need to understand you. Even a very simple request is likely to be executed more quickly if people understand why you are making it. "You want to supplement your quick request with a little bit of context," Kaipa says.
Kaipa also encourages frank conversations with your team. "Right upfront, if we give an opportunity for people to bitch and moan a little bit, the connection seems to come deeper." And that includes yourself: by "sharing authentically and being willing to be vulnerable," people will be more open with you, he says. At the same time, you may still need to stay on your guard. For US diplomats, even offering a straight answer to a question like how you are liking your new post can present a possible security risk, says the State Department's Rubin.
6. Define your leadership style – together.
"Leadership is a tango," says Nancy Benthien, a coach and culture consultant. "A leader who is perhaps from America or Germany or Canada, trying to lead somebody in a dramatically different culture, they have to recognize that the people in their team in another part of the world may look at them and have different expectations about what makes a good leader." Beyond issues like how centralized decision-making is going to be, it can be helpful to set some norms of behavior . "An example would be being late to meetings. If the team norm is that we will all begin on time … and then somebody shows up late and nobody talks to them about it, or they're not held accountable, the norm is broken." This is why setting norms directly in the beginning is important, Benthien says. "And it's doubly so if [the team is geographically] distributed because people come in with all kinds of expectations about how things are supposed to be done, why we're here and why we're working as a team."
7. Swap stories.
In many cultures, building trust is a gradual process, Benthien says, one that can be accelerated a bit by exchanging stories. "Sometimes I'll start off a workshop or a team coaching session by having people tell a story about something that is meaningful to them. Then others see a glimpse of somebody that's a little different than what they would see in an office building or meeting – those little openings help build that psychological safety."
But not all bonding activities are for everyone. "In some countries I worked in, the leaders and their team loved to drink a lot at dinner over many hours," recalls Hess. "I found in some cases that my limits were offensive to my hosts and I had to go to Plan B: I sat next to flowers or plants and when they were engrossed with each other, I delicately poured my drink into the flowerpot."
Whether building a rapport with story or a dodged toast, deep down, people everywhere have more in common than not. "People are people at the end of the day," Benthien explains. Or as the traveler and essayist Michel de Montaigne noted, "There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others."