Viewpoints & Articles

Working Across Cultures

People sometimes say to me, "You've been around long enough (thanks), so what does it take to work effectively across cultures?" There is no easy answer to that question, of course, but let me give you a few clues based on all my long years of crossing and re-crossing cultural borders.

Adaptability: Ability to adjust quickly to changing circumstances and situations.

The world is dynamic and forever changing. As the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus said, "You can't step into the same river twice," and he lived c 535-475 BC! How much of a truism it is today. More than at any other time in history, cultures are bumping up against one another, forming new hybrids, and evolving. Technological change continually turns us upside down and inside out. When I travel, I have to be very careful about the assumptions I make about people. When I meet that young Japanese man and woman in Tokyo they seem more Western in their attitudes and values than I am, but then the context 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 must constantly adjust.

Cooperation: Willingness and ability to work with others for mutual benefit.

Globalization has opened up borders, but it has also opened up old wounds and anxieties. Power is divided up unequally in the world - no matter how flat Thomas Friedman thinks it is - and history throws dark shadows on the walls of the present. Colonialism and exploitation are not distant memories for many. We often go into other countries feeling fresh-faced, innocent, ultramodern, and history-free. It is inappropriate for us all to carry historical guilt like a ball and chain, but it is important for long-term success across borders to act in good faith and with sincerity. That when we say we want to do business together for mutual benefit, we mean it. The stench of manipulation and exploitation is fresh in many noses. I once heard an Asian businessman say to a group of Western managers, "You come here preaching collaboration, but what you really mean is do it our way [as you always have - my inference]." Genuine collaboration and successful business relationships begin and end in trust of one another, and trust is the result of a shared history of aligned interests and reciprocal benefits.

Curiosity and Learning: Desire to find answers to questions like who, what, where, why, and how?

If you aren't curious about the world you live in, and hungry to learn about how others feel, think, and behave (and why?) stay close to home. Disinterest is quickly communicated to others, and is usually perceived as disrespect, 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 and relationships.

Empathy: Being aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others.

A French manager in one of the global teams I was working with had had enough of working with the Japanese. He actually knew nothing of Japanese business culture; he just knew he couldn't work with them. We held a team development workshop in Japan, and he had a chance to sit and talk with his Japanese counterparts, as well as see how things worked in the Japanese organization. He learned Japanese cultural expectations about such activities as communication, decision-making, information sharing, and planning. When he left, he said, "Now I understand." It is hard to see the world through someone else's eyes, even in our own culture, but if we are to collaborate well we must try. To empathize is not necessarily to agree, but it is a step toward understanding.

Friendliness: Ability to generate good feelings in relationships.

So many cultures are relationship-oriented that is critical 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, always protective 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 often comes down to just being liked.

Objectivity: Ability to look at people and viewpoints without bias.

All of the cultural orientations that cross-culturalists talk about, like task focused - relationship-focused, individualism - collectivism, have potential advantages or drawbacks depending on the context. If I am always individualistic in every situation, then potentially I miss out on the benefits that a more collectivist approach can offer. Being able to flex between different styles is the way to get the best out of others and ourselves. To be able to see the value of different ways of seeing, thinking, and doing does require an ability to step outside of our learned preferences and say, "My way might not be the best way in this context. Your way seems better."

Patience: Willingness and ability to give others - and yourself - time to learn and adjust.

We can easily make false judgments about others who are doing their best to adjust to new realities they face. We can easily not see the talent in someone who is currently struggling to communicate their ideas in a language that is not their first language. I remember a manager in Spain saying, "I'm so tired of English speakers thinking that I'm incompetent 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 quickly become impatient with ourselves when working across cultures. We get frustrated with not producing results as fast as we are used to, or we feel we are not learning quickly enough. What happens? We burn out. We decide to withdraw into our cultural comfort zone. We become angry and depressed. As my grandmother used to say, "Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can."

Perceptiveness: Ability to accurately identify differences and similarities between people.

There's an old saying, "What you don't know, can't hurt you." It's akin to, "Ignorance is bliss." Really? I don't know if the people who came up with those expressions ever traveled beyond their own borders. If they did, I'm sure they wouldn't have been so naïve. How many cross-border alliances have failed to produce results because of ignorance of the impact that cultural differences can make? Many according to the research. We need to go into cross-cultural relationships with our eyes open, and our minds finely calibrated to differentiating between cultural orientations. If we can't do that, we can't adapt appropriately.

Resilience: Being able to keep going despite difficulties and setbacks.

Crossing borders, both physically and mentally, can be exhausting. When you are in your own cultural comfort zone you are able to take a lot of things for granted. Your antennae don't have to be on alert the whole time. Paying very close attention for long periods to what is being said or done - or not being said and done - is challenging. Energy drains away from you, particularly if you think you're embarrassing yourself or others. A sense of humor helps to get you through the worst moments and keep going.

Self-Awareness: Understanding one's own habitual ways of thinking and behaving and their potential impact.

Self-management is a crucial part of adapting to a different cultural milieu, but how can you control your feelings, thoughts and behaviors and their impact on others if you are unaware of your habitual tendencies and responses? The challenge is to slow down our stimulus-response mechanisms and make more considered responses to difference.

Those are a few of the personal attributes I think are needed to work well with others in this increasingly borderless world. Above all else, be open and keep learning.

TMA World's Viewpoints