Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Becoming Culturally Competent

Competence has been defined as the ability to do something successfully. It has been linked to intelligence. Therefore, one can say that becoming culturally competent requires one to be culturally intelligent. But what is cultural intelligence?



An outsider, who has a natural ability to understand and interpret an unfamiliar culture is said to be culturally intelligent. This can be very useful in today's world when people travel for work quite early in their career. A person who is culturally intelligent(and competent) does not judge things very quickly, rather, tries to get into the next layer of behaviour.

The Head-Body-Heart concept stated in the article "Cultural Intelligence" by Early and Mosakowski presents an interesting approach. The authors argue that when stepping into a new culture, one needs to build bridges using 'Head'(Cognitive issues), 'Body'(Physical dimensions such as dresses) and 'Heart'(emotional & motivational).

Further understanding can be based on the following characterizations of cultural intelligence profiles by the above authors:

Provincial: Someone who is comfortable in working with people of similar background but runs into problems otherwise.

Analyst: The analyst methodically deciphers the alien culture through observations

Natural: Relies on intuition rather than systematic learning

Ambassador: Convincingly communicates that he has a lot of goodwill for the new culture

Mimic: Someone who has high degree of control over his action and behaviour using which he puts the hosts at ease.

Chameleon: A manager who completely acquires the culture of the new environment using the Head-Body-Heart concept.

A culturally competent manager is one who can adapt to different working styles native to different cultures. It is not just about behaving but also understanding the full context of behaviour of the local natives. It is a skill that no modern manager can do without.
 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Global Dexterity!

In an age when employees are expected to move across countries for longer durations, or make short term travels across cultures, it is can often be very daunting to be afraid of cultural barriers. Indeed, one of the attributes of a modern successful executive could be the ability to move across cultures effortlessly and be an effective business executive, and without getting overpowered by the gaps.



Professor Sheryll Cashin describes cultural dexterity as “the ability to walk into a room and be outnumbered by people of a different race or ethnicity and experience excitement rather than fright”.

According to Korn Ferry, Cultural Dexterity combines cultural knowledge, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills that can be adapted to achieve improved business results in any cross-cultural situation.

Culturally dexterous people are least prejudicial to other cultures. They are able to be themselves, at the same time, are able to integrate themselves with other cultures very effortlessly, and withdraw from it when moving to another culture.

This skill acquires great significance for leaders, and it must be inculcated in self from the beginning of one's career or even before.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Leading Across Cultures!

As a team leader, nothing is more important than driving the team to success. It is easier said than done because different teams behave differently. One reason is team composition. The second reason is team culture. Team culture, at least partly, inherits from national culture, which serves as its context.


Workers in the US for example, while accepting the orders from a superior, may openly express disagreements, whereas, those in eastern cultures, will be more deferential and keep quiet, even if they are not in agreement. So, if a leader bred in eastern culture is transported to lead a team in the US, she/he may feel that the workers are arrogant. On the other hand, a leader from the US culture, if sent to lead a team in the east, may feel the team members are under communicative. Both situations are problems if common cultural grounds are not arrived at. 

One also needs to be self-aware, in order to understand how one is likely to be interpreted in the other culture. What one culture may see as decisive, others may see as arrogant. Depending on the operating culture, a leader needs to adapt his style.

If not handled correctly, it can lead to the team getting demotivated, despite intentions to the otherwise. 

Culture can vary across organisations as well. A good leader would be one, who understands the new culture quickly and adapts accordingly. Sometimes, culture can be a cause for organizational underperformance as well. In such cases, a leader has to play his responsibility of guiding the team through a cultural transition, while taking everyone on board

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cultural Issues in Strategic Alliances & Negotiations

One of the greatest cross cultural successes in the business world is the Renault Nissan Alliance. If one reads the differences between the two cultures, it appears too good to be true. In fact, almost unreal.With Mitsubishi joining the alliance recently, there is another spice in the curry!

Despite the obvious contrasts in the French and the Japanese cultures, how do such alliances succeed? The large question is, what are the dynamics of cross cultural alliances, howsoever big or small they are? How does one negotiate in a culture that is markedly different? The Hofstede dimensions provide us a clue!


Power distance often tells us the how the communication channels may work. If Power Distance in that culture is high, there is no point in seeking a meeting with the senior most executive. It is unlikely that an appointment will be granted easily! Instead, it is advisable to work with junior executives initially, who will report everything in detail to the boss!!

If negotiating as a team, one must ascertain the Individualism vs Collectivism score of that culture. This helps in determining whether the decision will be taken by the senior most person(middle east, maybe), or the entire team(as in Japan). One can plan the discussions accordingly.

Uncertainty Avoidance scores tell us whether the other party is likely to keep things vague, or prefer to have clear stands. If the native culture is low on uncertainty avoidance(India!), it is okay to expect some vagueness and open endedness.

Long Term vs Short Term Orientation: When meeting a client in an alien culture for business negotiations, it is important to ascertain his country and organisational orientation on this score and plan accordingly. For example, if the alien culture is very short term oriented, a 5 or 10 year long plan may be of little interest to the client.

Masculinity vs Femininity: In a business negotiation context, this parameter is extremely significant. It helps plan gifts, for example. In high masculine environment, the gifts need to be ego touching. Example, one can plan a better gift for the boss than the rest of the team. However, in high feminine environment, same gifts may work well, despite the hierarchy.


Contextuality

By knowing this aspect one can ascertain some aspects of communication and behaviour. In High Context cultures, one can expect a lot between the lines, and therefore body language has to be observed very closely. In low context culture, one can expect direct communication.

Keeping these factors as part of the negotiation or alliance plan can remove unwanted anxieties, and make the discussions productive.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Working in a Multi Cultural World

The days of a single culture teams have gone into history.Modern international trade exchanges have given rise a highly intertwined business across countries. Take a look at the Boeing 787 aircraft, where the parts come from no less than 15 countries, possibly even more. Teams have become 'virtual' and ever connected. Though this has resulted in a humungous amount of cultural exchange, the downside is that with teams working 24X7X365, cultural issues tend to have a direct bearing on the productivity of teams - a challenge no global organization can ignore. Teams are often formed for projects and dissolved when the project is over.The result is that the Bruce Tuckman's famed stages of teaming - Forming, Norming, Storming and Performing are often compressed and teams expected to be in the performing stage from the initial moment. 

Organisationally, one is expected to subsume individual goals into organizational goals but there is a problem with this premise. The organization measures every individual's performance of their specific KRAs and not just project outcomes. If we add country-specific behaviour norms into a diverse team, the challenge becomes much more complex.

It is, therefore, extremely important for a modern manager to be aware of the pitfalls of ignoring cultural behaviour norms among its team members, as well as his self-culture. To assume cultural homogeneity can be the biggest disservice a leader can do to his team. C.Carey Young, in this article, lists out the following 7 effective components of a cross-cultural team. 

1. Learn, understand, respect and leverage the cultural differences.
2. You cannot over-communicate, but only in the right way.
3. Build a team of ONE.
4. Make a culturally correct decision.
5. Foster cohesive relationship and build trust.
6. Resolve conflicts quickly and peacefully.
7. Play to win

Today it is no more enough to be functionally competent to be a successful business leader. One needs to possess the cultural intelligence to navigate through the nuances of cultural diversity prevalent in a team. It has also given rise to a business leader, who is culturally grounded in her/his own culture, but is equally sensitive and understanding of the cultural diversity in the team and adapts accordingly. For example, being judgmental too soon in a culturally diverse team can be quite detrimental. A good business leader, or a team member, has to hold judging individuals till they understand the culture they come from. 

So what are the red flags of working in multi-cultural teams?

First and the foremost, assuming a single culture is the biggest red flag. The second one is an expectation that everyone should follow the same behaviour template. The third one is tolerating any form of insults or barbs on a team member's culture. 

A good practice for managers is to be aware of the cultural aspects of countries or regions their team members come from. She/he should also ensure that if possible, cultural sensitization sessions are regularly organized for everyone.

Ignoring cultural issues can give rise to team conflicts, often to the detriment of a collective outcome. The 4 behavioural models in conflict situation are (a) Bulldog(Parochial, persistent and attacking), (b) Chameleon(Lacks credibility and authenticity), (c) Ant(Hard working but they bite) and (d) Rabit (They scoot at the sight of conflict).
In fact, everyone has possibly all 4 of the above characters and they get expressed in different situations.

My personal strength on the cultural diversity dimension is empathy. Due to years of corporate experience in diverse teams, I have realized that the person is not the name as his job role, but in reality the product of one or more cultures.Therefore to effectively deal with a team member or client from another culture, one needs to understand the culture a bit. At the same time, one should not make an exhibition of it, unless very sure-footed, else there could be issues. 

Some behavioural rules in building relationships, trust, respect and personal connect in team members could be:

Communicate adequately 
Communicate in detail. Go into specifics of what you expect or what you understood
Set real expectations. When others assign work to you, it is a good idea to repeat your understanding.
Upsetting a colleague by not accepting a timeline for a deliverable is better than agreeing for it and not delivering it later on.
Facetime is better than emails or calls. Use Videoconferences or web conference tools such as Skype or Google Hangout to see your colleague(s) and be seen to them.
Asking, telling, nodding, hand gestures all have different interpretations in different cultures. For example, 'Do you want to call him now?' can elicit different responses from 2 respondents, one talking it as an instruction to call someone and carrying it out, and the other simply responding, "No, I don't".

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Geography of Thought: Big Picture vs Minutiae

It is not common to hear a corporate debate in which one colleague, usually the boss(Person A), in an effort to win the argument against a reluctant colleague(Person B), says, " Come on, look at the big picture". The subtext is that Person B is looking at only one small part of the problem and trying to solve only that, whereas, according to the Person A, the problem needs a holistic view. It is a corporate tradeoff, that many have encountered so many times.

This very much is an issue in intercultural communication and behaviour. We have seen Americans who start the discussion this way:

"Let's come straight to the point. This happened because the engine chamber overheated "

The discussion is centred around a small problem, which is isolated from the beginning and everything else is turned 'external' or extraneous.

Then one sees colleagues from Japan and China, who labour around a broad area for very long, and then coming to the point ("Overall, the car has come out nice. The engine power is also in the expected range, and so is the fuel efficiency. The riding comfort is also good and the vehicle is quite safe on the Indian roads. However, in my personal opinion, the engine lining is not interacting with the surface properly, whereas the rest of the engine is operating fine").

Such variation in behaviour is a major workplace issue and often causes conflict.

I think the key is in not being judgmental and in being patient and observational. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Communication in Multi Cultural World

Challenges in communication have persisted in a multi-cultural environment since much before presents became gifts, inclines transformed into ramps, and way long before lifts took avatar as elevators.It gets quite an aggravated challenge when a single medium of communication is used, such as only voice call or written email.

Communication Mindmap




Today's cross-functional, cross time zone and multi-location teams make collaborative working quite a challenge. In most occasions, colleagues in different locations don't meet frequently and that lack of face time compounds the problem manifold. Worse still, even the most common forms of intra-organization communication - email and telephone calls - are devoid of visuals, as well as tactile elements. Due to this missing visual/tactile component, body language elements, that often provide a context to the words, go completely missing. The consequence is that communication gets distorted and messages misunderstood.

For a client-vendor communication, such issues can cause completely unwelcome problems. One approach to avoid such issues is to rely on video communication channels such as videoconference, Skype and Google Hangout, that allow the users to see as well as listen. The advantage of such channels over email or teleconference is that one is able to see the facial expressions, the body posture, and the hand movements, and therefore, the chances of accidental misunderstandings are somewhat reduced.  

Another technique is to begin a conversation with a 'small talk' (an unrelated to the business agenda item), that gets everyone familiarised with each other's communication style and personality, before getting onto business items.