Building cultural fluency

Communication  Culture
13 May, 2019

Hone your cultural intelligence to form strong, effective working relationships across geographies

Last week, it was wonderful to have our leaders from across our various geographies in Mumbai sharing learnings, discussing the plans for the year and connecting with each other. The diverse perspectives of the leaders from various cultures made our discussions more insightful and enabled us to develop a deeper understanding of our opportunities and challenges.

Cultural fluency enables managers to fully leverage the talent of team members in different geographies, driving innovation, productivity and overall financial performance.

As companies like ours expand globally, cultural fluency becomes vital to building trust and facilitating collaboration. It enables managers to fully leverage the talent of team members in different geographies, driving innovation, productivity and overall financial performance. Yet, somehow, this is often overlooked, leaving people unable to overcome the puzzling barriers found in a different workplace.

Some leaders sacrifice cultural intelligence at the altar of efficiency, not realising that the former is closely linked to the latter. Others understand the importance of this skill, but don’t really know how to go about developing it. So, this week, my message focuses on the need for cultural fluency and how you can sharpen your cross-cultural skills.

Global work assignments come in different forms: a long-term relocation to a foreign country, a short-term international project, or a remote team that brings together people with various nationalities. In each scenario, cultural intelligence plays a key role in your success – or failure. Not only does this apply to overseas assignments or global roles only; think also about the cultural differences and nuances even across different parts of India or your country.

In monocultural teams, people interact in shorthand, helped along by their common background. They can read the true meaning behind each other’s tone of voice, expressions, gestures and phrases. But in multicultural groups, this effortless communication breaks down. In the Harvard Business Review article, When Culture Doesn’t Translate, Erin Meyer elaborates:

In companies where everyone is located in the same country…a lot of work is done in this implicit way without anyone’s taking note. If I walk by your office and see you studying October’s budget with a worried look, I might send you a comprehensive breakdown of my costs for the month. If I see you shrink in your seat when the boss asks if you can meet a deadline, I know that your “yes” really means “I wish I could”…

But when companies begin to expand internationally, implicit communication stops working. If you don’t tell me you need a budget breakdown, I won’t send one. If you say yes even though you mean no, I’ll think that you agreed… The more we work with people from other cultures in far-flung locations, the less we pick up on subtle meaning and the more we fall victim to misunderstanding and inefficiency.

Cultural intelligence helps to bridge these fault lines and prevent the organisation from breaking up into “us versus them” camps. A key aspect of this competency is suspending judgment and taking the time to register the ways in which a new culture is similar to and different from your own. With this, you can better interpret and anticipate the behaviour of your colleagues and clients from different geographies, enabling effective cooperation.

Here are eight key insights to help you build cultural fluency and better navigate different cultures:

1. Diagnose your cultural competence

Authors Jane Hyun and Doug Conant, in their Harvard Business Review article, 3 Ways to Improve your Cultural Fluency, recommend the Intercultural Development Inventory  tool to diagnose and reflect on your cultural competence. The tool is based on an developmental model that identifies behaviours and mindsets that you can adapt for gaining greater cultural fluency.

2. Treat emotions like a language

In the Harvard Business Review article, Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Translate Across Borders, Andy Molinsky recommends approaching the emotions of a foreign culture in the same way as an unfamiliar language:

Emotions vary tremendously across cultures… Without a detailed understanding of these emotional landscapes, crossing cultures can become a communication minefield…

Try your best to learn the language of emotions in whatever culture you’re working in. Observe whether people tend to express emotions readily or keep them to themselves…. Diagnose any gaps between how you’d express emotions in your culture and how people you’ll be interacting with express emotion in theirs.

For example, an enthusiastic communication style might hold you in good stead in the US, but would be viewed warily in China, where reserve and self-control are prized at the workplace. Remember, even if you’re a leader, you can’t expect your new team members to adapt to your cultural norms – the onus is on you to learn and adjust your approach. (Just like you wouldn’t expect everyone in France to learn your native language if you were heading there. Instead, you’d learn a few French phrases and use Google Translate to get your message across!)

3. Get region specific

There are lots of good ways to research a new culture: read books and articles, watch videos and talk to people who have worked and lived in the country. While doing so, make sure you also pay attention to regional nuances since many nations are home to distinct sub-cultures, each with its own unique characteristics. Ignoring region-specific details can undermine your research, leaving you unprepared.

4. Begin by observing

While you may have done your homework, keep in mind that the reality doesn’t always match the theory to a tee. The way things work on the ground might be somewhat different, so don’t walk in thinking that your new-found knowledge is infallible. Take some time to observe your new setting.

How do people prefer to interact? Are decisions made by consensus, or does the leader usually take a call? Do people communicate differently in different settings – at a meeting, in a one-on-one conversation, or during a team outing? In Japan, for instance, while professional interactions at the office tend to be formal and reserved, things take on a much more casual and outgoing aspect when colleagues head out for drinks or karaoke in the evenings.

5. Pay attention to context

As Andy Molinsky explains in Cultural Differences Are More Complicated than What Country You’re From, culture isn’t shaped by place alone – it’s also a product of the organisation and industry:

Like countries and regions, companies and industries also have distinctive cultures… Meetings at traditional, bureaucratic organizations are often run quite differently from meetings at small startups. Norms for behavior in the advertising industry are quite different from norms for behavior in the agricultural industry, and so on.

Let’s say you’re meeting a group of Spanish consultants from a global firm, followed by a traditional family-run Spanish business. Although both are from the same country, there are bound to be differences between them: the consultants are likely to be more cosmopolitan, while the family business will probably reflect the culture of Spain more closely. Accordingly, your communication style should account for these variations.

6. Be part of the local community

If you’re working in a foreign country that’s vastly different from your own, one of the best ways to gain cultural fluency is to integrate into the local lifestyle. As an expat, it’s all too easy to live in a small bubble where you interact only with other expats – this limits your understanding of prevailing cultural norms. So, make an effort to interact with residents, explore local food, and experience the city’s favourite pastimes. As a bonus, building close intercultural friendships will actually boost your own creativity, as shown by recent research at MIT Sloan. If you don’t know where to begin, ask your colleagues. Not only will they give you great suggestions but also appreciate the fact that you’re making an effort to immerse yourself in their culture.

7. Press pause on easy assumptions

Let’s say your exciting new initiative is greeted by foreign colleagues with a blank look or a “not bad”. If you’re from an expressive culture, you may see this as a sign that they hate your idea or simply don’t want to put in the required work. Conversely, if you’re from a reserved culture, you might see overt expressions of enthusiasm (like wide smiles and loud praise) as fake and hypocritical.

Either way, don’t jump to conclusions. Instead, ask follow-up questions to determine your co-workers’ actual feelings. Is the proposal clear? Does it align with their needs and goals? Are there any changes it could benefit from? Remember, cultures express approval in different ways: in London “not bad” might mean “superb”, while in Rome enthusiasm is typically shown through eloquence and expansive hand gestures.

8. Walk the “inclusivity” talk

To collaborate effectively with teams in different geographies, we must ensure that every cultural group is heard. In the above-mentioned article, Meyer explains that while company headquarters often want to be inclusive, they trip up due to lack of cultural fluency. She gives the example of a US-based firm that held regular conference calls to check in with their team in Thailand. Based on their own communication style, the Americans sent the agenda an hour prior to the call and expected the Thais to jump in with their input.

The Thais, however, being group-oriented in their decision-making, wanted the agenda at least 24 hours in advance so they could discuss it and get feedback from their colleagues. Plus, in Thai business culture, people are typically invited to give their comments. As Meyer explains:

The Thai manager summed up his perspective this way: “They invite us to the meeting, but they don’t suggest with their actions that they care what we have to say.” The Thai team members ended up just sitting on the phone listening—giving the Americans the impression that they had nothing to contribute or weren’t interested in participating.

For genuinely inclusive cross-cultural calls/meetings, Meyer suggests three basic tenets:

  • Send the agenda well in advance, giving participants enough time to prepare.
  • Ask everyone to speak in global English, slowly and clearly. Recap important points.
  • Check in with international participants regularly during the call/meeting. For example, “Any feedback from Chile?”.
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