You work for a large multinational company. Your colleagues are largely Caucasian like you, but there are also a significant number of people of Afro-Caribbean, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Korean and Chinese backgrounds in the companies’ various divisions.
Recently the company acquired two large insurance companies in China and Singapore. With them came large teams of European, Australian and American expatriates, Singaporean Chinese, Malaysians, Indians, mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Indonesians, Thais, Vietnamese and Filipinos.
There was a time when you felt proud of your intercultural skills working with a variety of people from different backgrounds and nationalities in your headquarters office in New England.
But now you are part of a strategic integration team helping your senior executives understand and adapt to the working styles, customs, business approaches and expectations of the people in the new Hong Kong and Singapore subsidiaries – and their clients in various Asia countries.
- FIND YOUR COMPASS
Suddenly you feel lost. As a human resources specialist, you are expected to provide lists of prescriptive ‘dos and don’ts’ for each cultural or ethnic grouping your senior managers will encounter in their daily work.
However, it soon becomes apparent that for all your valiant attempts to provide in-depth training modules, spending time in both China and Singapore to get a feel of the challenges, your leadership teams cannot handle the sheer diversity of different cultures.
They are having problems with communication, what to expect from business meetings and how to run them, negotiations, approaches to contracts, and above all problems of trust and being trusted. They cannot take on board the number of adjustments necessary for the various cultural groupings and national ‘types’.
They simply want to do things exactly as they do them at home – or at least with as little adjustment as possible – and they cannot understand why this approach is causing so many problems.
And then you realise that what they really need is the kind of instinctive global management skills that have enabled you to work successfully with your multicultural teams at home.
2. BE FLEXIBLE AND OPEN
You are flexible and tolerant at work. Admittedly, your approach hasn’t always succeeded – sometimes you have felt left out or made clumsy mistakes, sometimes you feel uncomfortable in an after-work setting with colleagues from a different background – but generally speaking you have interacted effectively and sensitively with colleagues of many national and ethnic backgrounds.
3. BECAUSE YOU ARE CURIOUS – AND COMPARATIVE
You instinctively know that your way and the way you have been brought up are not the only way. That other people have values and beliefs and customs that are equally valid and important, and indeed that you can always learn from them.
And you understand that’s what you should be teaching your senior managers – a way to handle the sheer variety of intercultural settings they might encounter, a mindset that transcends national boundaries as well as old-fashioned lists of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts and national stereotypes.
Not that you have given up all attempts to characterize certain countries. You still believe that you can help some executives who are focusing on one particular country market. You still think you can give them the right ‘feel’ for that country and its cultural traditions.
4. DEVELOP YOUR CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE
But you also believe that you can help develop a set of smart intercultural skills for ALL executives that will help them manage culturally diverse settings wherever they encounter them – at home or overseas.
You think this will become especially relevant when the company expands into more of the 10 ASEAN country markets beyond Singapore – as it plans to.
So you create a new programme called Global Management Skills for International Teams that draws on your experience with multicultural teams in your home country, and your field research in China, Hong Kong and Singapore and neighbouring countries.
And you are not surprised when your senior managers tell you that this programme has helped them adapt to and function in the new cultural settings of Asia Pacific, as well as raising the performance, productivity and creativity of their teams at home.
5. BECOME A LIFELONG LEARNER
Neurolinguistic scientific research identifies a small minority of people of all backgrounds, about 7 per cent, who have a natural and innate tendency towards cultural adaptation and emotional flexibility.
Such people tend to be excellent travellers, have strong sense of empathy, and be very good at learning (and wanting to learn) new languages. The remaining 93 per cent need training, awareness raising and encouragement to overcome their tendency to remain mired in cultural stereotypes and a rigid ‘I know what’s best’ attitude.
However, with your new experience of helping your company’s senior leaders, you now believe that such a system of intercultural competence can be taught and learned. By discussing cultural differences quite openly with your colleagues, you are helping to raise your company’s performance both at home and in Asia.
And that’s a very good feeling to have.
David Clive Price, Ph.D. is the author of The Master Key to Asia, The Master Key to China and Bamboo Strong: Secrets to Succeed in the New Global Economy.
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