TMA World Viewpoint: Working Successfully Across Cultures
Working across cultures.What does ittake?TMA WorldViewpoint
Working across cultures: what does it take?People sometimes say to me, “You’ve beenaround long enough (thanks), so what does ittake to work effectively across cultures?” There isno easy answer to that question, of course, butlet me give you a few clues based on all my longyears of crossing and re-crossing cultural borders. AdaptabilityAbility to adjust quickly to changing circumstances and situations.The world is dynamic and forever changing. As the philosopher Heraclitusof Ephesus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice,” and he livedc 535-475 BC! How much of a truism it is today. More than at any other time inhistory, cultures are bumping up against one another, forming new hybrids,and evolving. Technological change continually turns us upside down and insideout. When I travel, I have to be very careful about the assumptions I makeabout people. When I meet that young Japanese man and woman in Tokyothey seem more Western in their attitudes and values than I am, but then thecontext changes and we are not in the street but meeting with bosses.Suddenly they change before my eyes. It’s a complex world, and I mustconstantly adjust.
Working across cultures: what does it take? CooperationWillingness and ability to work with others formutual benefit.Globalization has opened up borders, but it has alsoopened up old wounds and anxieties. Power is dividedup unequally in the world - no matter how flatThomas Friedman thinks it is - and history throws darkshadows on the walls of the present. Colonialism and exploitation are notdistant memories for many. We often go into other countries feeling fresh-faced, innocent, ultramodern, and history-free. It is inappropriate for us all tocarry historical guilt like a ball and chain, but it is important for long-termsuccess across borders to act in good faith and with sincerity. That when wesay we want to do business together for mutual benefit, we mean it. Thestench of manipulation and exploitation is fresh in many noses. I once heardan Asian businessman say to a group of Western managers, “You come herepreaching collaboration, but what you really mean is do it our way [as youalways have - my inference].” Genuine collaboration and successful businessrelationships begin and end in trust of one another, and trust is the result of ashared history of aligned interests and reciprocal benefits.
Working across cultures: what does it take? Curiosity & LearningDesire to find answers to questions like: WHO? WHAT? WHERE? WHY? HOW?If you aren’t curious about the world you live in, and hungry to learn abouthow others feel, think, and behave (and why?) stay close to home.Disinterest is quickly communicated to others, and is usually perceived asdisrespect, or worse, arrogance.Each culture - including our own - is a narrow window onto the world.Through curiosity and learning we expand our vision and enrich our world andrelationships.
Working across cultures: what does it take? EmpathyBeing aware of and sensitive to the feelings,thoughts, and experiences of others.A French manager in one of the global teams I wasworking with had had enough of working with the Japanese.He actually knew nothing of Japanese business culture; he just knew hecouldn’t work with them. We held a team development workshop in Japan, andhe had a chance to sit and talk with his Japanese counterparts, as well as seehow things worked in the Japanese organization.He learned Japanese cultural expectations about such activities ascommunication, decision-making, information sharing, and planning.When he left, he said, “Now I understand.” It is hard to see the world throughsomeone else’s eyes, even in our own culture, but if we are to collaborate wellwe must try.To empathize is not necessarily to agree, but it is a step toward understanding.
Working across cultures: what does it take? FriendlinessAbility to generate good feelings in relationships.So many cultures are relationship-oriented that iscritical to be able to create good feelings.To be liked and trusted as a person opens hearts and minds.Those who are cynical, always on their guard, alwaysprotective and watching if someone is out to fool them or take advantage,are lost.Cynicism doesn’t help build relationships or respect.Neither does abrasiveness, deception, volatility, or hyper-competitiveness.As one of my colleagues once said to me, success in other cultures oftencomes down to just being liked.
Working across cultures: what does it take? Objectivity “My way might notAbility to look at people and be the best way inviewpoints without bias. this context. Your way seems better.”All of the cultural orientations thatcross-culturalists talk about, liketask focused - relationship-focused, individualism -collectivism, have potential advantages or drawbacksdepending on the context.If I am always individualistic in every situation, thenpotentially I miss out on the benefits that a more collectivistapproach can offer.Being able to flex between different styles is the way to getthe best out of others and ourselves. To be able to see thevalue of different ways of seeing, thinking, and doing doesrequire an ability to step outside of our learned preferencesand say, “My way might not be the best way in this context.Your way seems better.”
Working across cultures: what does it take? PatienceWillingness and ability to give others - and yourself –time to learn and adjust.We can easily make false judgments about others who are doing theirbest to adjust to new realities they face. We can easily not see the talentin someone who is currently struggling to communicate their ideas in alanguage that is not their first language. I remember a manager inSpain saying, “I’m so tired of English speakers thinking that I’mincompetent because I do not speak English as fluently as they do.”There is no doubt that we can become impatient quickly,particularly those of us in task- and results-driven cultures.We can’t afford to lose talent because of impatience.There is also, however, another side to this. We can quicklybecome impatient with ourselves when working acrosscultures. We get frustrated with not producing results asfast as we are used to, or we feel we are not learning quicklyenough. What happens? We burn out. We decide to withdraw into our culturalcomfort zone. We become angry and depressed. As my grandmother used tosay, “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can.”
Working across cultures: what does it take? PerceptivenessAbility to accurately identify differencesand similarities between people.There’s an old saying, “What you don’tknow, can’t hurt you.” It’s akin to,“Ignorance is bliss.” Really? I don’t knowif the people who came up with thoseexpressions ever traveled beyond theirown borders. If they did, I’m sure theywouldnt have been so naïve. How manycross-border alliances have failed toproduce results because of ignorance ofthe impact that cultural differences canmake? Many according to the research.We need to go into cross-culturalrelationships with our eyes open, and ourminds finely calibrated to differentiatingbetween cultural orientations. If we can’tdo that, we can’t adapt appropriately.
Working across cultures: what does it take? ResilienceBeing able to keep going despitedifficulties and setbacks.Crossing borders, both physically andmentally, can be exhausting. When youare in your own cultural comfort zoneyou are able to take a lot of things forgranted. Your antennae don’t haveto be on alert the whole time.Paying very close attention forlong periods to what is beingsaid or done - or not beingsaid and done - ischallenging. Energydrains away from you,particularly if you think you’re embarrassing yourselfor others. A sense of humor helps to get you through theworst moments and keep going.
Working across cultures: what does it take? Self-AwarenessUnderstanding one’s own habitual waysof thinking and behaving and theirpotential impact.Self-management is a crucial part of adapting to adifferent cultural milieu, but how can you controlyour feelings, thoughts and behaviors and theirimpact on others if you are unaware of your habitualtendencies and responses?The challenge is to slow down our stimulus-response mechanisms and make moreconsidered responses to difference.Those are a few of the personalattributes I think are needed to workwell with others in this increasinglyborderless world. Above all else, be open and keep learning.
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