While international business affords tremendous opportunity for growth and prosperity, often those opportunities are not fully realized. Cultural differences between strategic partners can serve as barriers to successful collaborative initiatives. Developing cross cultural competence is a life-long learning effort that can lead down a long path of workshops, how-to books, and frustrating experiences. Because executives don’t have time to commit to formal learning they often tackle international business challenges the same way they would at home, often with less than stellar results.
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However, there are relatively simple strategies that can greatly improve your credibility with global partners. Using the concept of cultural currency, executives can use straightforward tactics to build credibility and then leverage that credibility to establish deep international relationships. By utilizing variation in timing, perspective, and decision making, global professionals will find they make less critical mistakes, and learn more from the mistakes they do make all while building rapport with their international counterparts.
Get to Know Yourself
One of the important first steps to accumulate cultural currency is to take a long look in the mirror and gain some insight on your personal style. By focusing your attention inwards, you can improve your self-awareness regarding your frustration level, pet peeves, assumptions and behavioral tendencies. You will need to understand these dark aspect of yourself because you will encounter them when working in international settings. Awareness is the first step to managing these emotions and tendencies. Insights can be gained through self-reflection and the use of psychometric assessments. However one of the best sources of information are the people you work with. Their perspective is more likely to be a true reflection because it is less distorted by positive bias.
While familiar best practices are useful algorithms to fall back on in our own culture, adherence to them also makes us rigid in our thinking, and leads us to conceptualize tasks in the light of the “right way” to do things. This rigidity is often the underlying cause of cultural errors in business. Rather than approaching tasks in a pre-determined fashion as we are trained to do, begin to complete them in a manner that you haven’t before. If you are impulsive, try to make a deliberate, data driven decision. If you prefer to work alone, try to get more experience in a team. Work in the evening instead of the morning. Sleep on the opposite side of the bed. Something as simple as choosing another way to drive to work adds to your cognitive flexibility. This flexibility leads to less tension when plans deviate, more viable alternatives when problem solving, and allows you to consider context before acting. Working in cross cultural settings will certainly require adaptation, and this flexibility can be exercised by breaking your established routines. By engaging in novel behaviors you are creating alternate pathways in your brain that generalize to cross cultural interactions, and that you will most certainly need when working abroad.
Do Your Cultural Homework
For any substantive decision, leaders now absorb a great deal of data and analysis before finalizing business. Strangely, culture is ignored. A great deal of research examines how cultures may differ, and this science is very accessible. For those who want to delve deeply into the topic there are a number of books, such as Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Hofstede, or Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business by Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars. For others looking for a less time consuming method to understand culture, there are now smart phone apps that allow you to compare cultural dimensions described in Hofstede’s work to your own. Many workshops are available to help you apply this new knowledge responsibly and effectively. The extent of your cross-cultural business preparation is inevitably influenced by organizational strategy, available resources, and motivation. But if you aren’t doing your homework, you aren’t doing your best.
Create “Empty Space” On Your Calendar
Part of the challenge of leading international teams is that the simplest task can take much longer to complete than with a team from a familiar culture. In the U.S. fast = successful. In general, leaders who take over a new team want to make a splash; a quick visible win to show the home office that they are capable of running an overseas initiative. This is a mistake. If you plan to be efficient in the early stages of an international initiative, your expectations won’t be met, you will be frustrated, and you will feel that you are behind from the very first stages of the project. We recommend building extra space in your calendar to handle these unforeseen project delays. In general, add 30% to any time estimate you might have developed with the home team, and sandwich the project plan with some “empty space”. You will need it to develop relationships, and solid connections on a personal level are invaluable when navigating new waters.
Emphasize Relationship vs. Task Focus
In the US, we maintain a very tight task focus when we are working, and an individual’s trustworthiness is often tied to their competence. However, in the rest of the world the basis of trust may be different, as well as what actually may be considered “work”. For instance, in Chicago drinking coffee in the afternoon and chatting about family may be considered slacking off. On the other hand, in Sao Paulo spending an afternoon getting to know a colleague or customer may be the smartest business decision you can make. The foundation of business in much of the world is not based on “what you know”, but rather “who you know, and who knows you”. Business deals are often conducted in tight, well maintained networks comprised of family and close friends. If you intend to get something done, you need to spend time developing and maintaining relationships.
Cultivate a Cultural Advisor
If you are lucky, your new relationships may yield a cultural advisor. This advisor should be someone familiar with the culture you will be working with, and ideally familiar with your own culture as well. Given their level of cultural expertise, these advisors can point out invisible cultural traps. The famous Invisible Gorilla studies conducted by Daniel Simons at the University of Illinois dramatically demonstrated that you can’t see what you don’t know or expect. If you are unfamiliar with cultural norms, they are literally invisible to you. A trusted cultural advisor can point out the invisible cultural gorilla in the room, and provide guidance on how to better navigate the issue. It is actually a good idea to cultivate a few advisors so you can get multiple perspectives and not rely too heavily on one person’s opinion.
When we are leading teams at home, we use our accumulated experience to develop management instincts, and we can rely on our gut feelings to know when something is wrong. However, when leading an international team or conducting international business, you may find that your inner compass fails you and that you may not have the cultural currency necessary to achieve success. The good news is that with a little effort, trust, and perspective taking, you can accumulate, invest and spend your cultural currency wisely by incorporating some relatively straightforward steps. While these tips aren’t a guarantee of success, you are more likely to build the deep relationships necessary for your business to adapt and prosper.