Intercultural diversity: turning challenge into opportunity

Intercultural diversity: turning challenge into opportunity

In my intercultural coaching work, I support mainly, though not exclusively, two client profiles. The first are companies in which teams from different countries need to work together. This is often done on a project basis, bringing people to collaborate with clients and colleagues they do not know that well; sometimes it is the result of a takeover or merger, and other times it is the consequence of an internal reshuffle that reassigns roles and redraws team boundaries. I recently worked with a French HQ team working on a project with their firm’s British subsidiary, to help them understand and adapt their behaviours for better results with their anglo-saxon colleagues. The other typical type of clients are managers in charge of multicultural teams. I have run numerous workshops for big NGOs, helping recently promoted managers navigate both their new responsibilities and their culturally diverse teams.

Whatever the profile type, I am almost always asked the same questions:

Can we overcome the challenges of working across cultures? How?

My answer is always the same too:

Yes! But why stop at overcoming challenges and obstacles, when – with a little thought and effort – you can turn those challenges into opportunities and advantages?

Here’s how.

  1. Know thyself

The first step towards greater cultural awareness and the ability to leverage difference to your advantage is to get to know your own culture.

Two fish are cruising around their tank one day when they pass an older fish coming from the other direction. “How’s the water?” asks the solo swimmer. “What water?” reply the young sprats. That’s culture. It’s the water we’re swimming around in that we do not even realise is there.

One way of discovering the values and shared references that underpin the society that shaped you is to consider your country’s proverbs and sayings; these often convey deeply held beliefs. It’s also important to think about your personal culture, which is influenced by many other things, ranging from your profession (you’re a lawyer? maybe you value justice…) to your hobbies (do you value creativity, fitness, fair play?) and your religion (charity? fidelity? humility?).

  1. Educate others

A simple way of helping culturally diverse teams work together is to organise team meetings in which people of different cultures take the realisations they’ve made about their own culture (see step 1!) and share them with their workmates. Maybe Guillaume explains that he and his countrymen tend to keep work and private life very separate, but that it is important in France for colleagues to lunch together. Next up, Victoria might explain that British people are quite open and direct in the way they express themselves as a rule, but that when it comes to offering any kind of negative feedback, they will do so less explicitly as diplomacy is paramount. It might help to read books like Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands or Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, for extra insights. So many misunderstandings and so much frustration can be avoided simply by knowing your own culture and then helping others to understand it too. It opens the way to easier communication by acknowledging the elephant in the room and giving everyone permission to voice their differences.

  1. Adopt an anthropological attitude

When interacting with people from other cultures, check your judgement at the door. Remind yourself that with most attitudes and behaviours, there’s no right or wrong, good or bad, there’s just my way and your way, our way and their way. The more you can approach difference with a curious, intrigued and detached attitude – like an anthropologist – the more you can learn and, ultimately, adapt.

  1. Create a team charter

To take cultural understanding to the next level, I encourage culturally diverse teams and their managers to create their own team charter. This consists of defining your team’s values and preferred behaviours and attitudes. It’s a chance for everyone to consider all the different cultures around the table and then agree on a way of being and working together that suits this particular group. Subjects to reflect upon might include how the team feels about punctuality, whether it values socialising outside of work, how it deals with conflict, what it expects from managers and staff members, how it chooses to make decisions. This is an opportunity to bring people together and put in place working methods that can raise the team’s level of collaboration, improve performance and productivity, and boost individuals’ sense of belonging, mutual respect and wellbeing.

  1. Play to your strengths

Another way of leveraging the massive potential that a multicultural team offers is to take into account individual and cultural strengths when assigning projects or tasks. Without, of course, buying into stereotypes, pigeonholing people or denying them the chance to learn, it can be beneficial to consider team members’ natural cultural strengths when handing out jobs. For example, maybe you have a presentation to make to an American client with an empiric, application-based reasoning style. She will need facts, figures and examples to be persuaded that your product is right for her company. You might want to choose your Canadian team member, who shares this mindset, to lead the sub-group working on that particular PowerPoint, rather than the French or Italian colleagues, who both have a theoretical, principles-based method of reasoning in which a theoretical argument is built based on a concept to show the logical thought behind a proposal. Of course, you have to take variation within a culture into account (not all Brits are funny, not all Germans are punctual), but by considering cultural fit you can help your team play to their natural strengths and perhaps even offer opportunities for them to help each other grow. Maybe you ask an implicit communicator to partner an explicit communicator on a delicate negotiation to help the latter develop a feeling for extreme diplomacy. Perhaps your deadline-dependent project is headed up by someone from a culture that values time planning and punctuality, assisted by someone from a time-flexible culture so they can learn from and balance each other.

Ultimately, the two keys to keys to working successfully across cultures are awareness and communication: know your own culture, understand other people’s cultures, then talk, share, and grow.

Are you finding it hard working with other cultures or within a multicultural team? Are you managing people from different cultural backgrounds to your own? Does your company have offices in multiple countries and require staff to work across borders? Working with an experienced, dynamic and practical intercultural coach can help you and your company not just overcome the challenges of our globalised and multicultural society but also unleash the potential of cultural diversity to boost performance and gain competitive advantage.  Contact me to find out how we can work together.

Be Your Own (Cross-Cultural) Coach: Taking the Shock Out of Cultural Difference

Be Your Own (Cross-Cultural) Coach: Taking the Shock Out of Cultural Difference

Two fish are cruising around their tank one day when they pass an older fish coming from the other direction. “How’s the water?” asks the solo swimmer. “What water?” reply the young sprats. That’s culture. It’s the water we’re swimming around in that we do not even realise is there.

Well, not until we leave the country we grew up in to move to, say, Paris, France, and notice – with a queasy mixture of horror and excitement – that we’re not in Kansas (or Kensington, Ko Samui or Kingston) anymore and people do things differently here.

Intercultural adaptation: step by step

The cultural sociologist Milton Bennet developed a model of intercultural sensitivity that identified the six standard ways in which people experience, interpret, and interact across cultural differences. On one end of the scale, we have denial: the state of not even realising that other cultures might do things differently. Not many of us are here given today’s globalised economy, but little details can creep up on you. I nearly fell off my chair when I was told that people drink port as an aperitif in France, not as a postprandial that gets passed to the left.

Then comes defence.

We all know this one: it rises to the surface any time I go to the post office in France and usually takes the form of “What do these people think they’re doing? Why can’t they just do things the way we do back home? It’s so much more organised!”

Thirdly, minimisation – that state of mind in which we are convinced that our cultural differences are insignificant and mainly focused on our countries’ differing relationships with cheese. When we get past these, we reach the last three stages of acceptance, adaptation and integration. A sort of Holy Grail Trinity, if you’ll excuse a shamelessly mixed metaphor.

The shock of culture

Culture shock is a heady mix of the first three states of being. It’s that crashing realisation that not only do differences exist, but they are far from minimal and that our own culture has not necessarily got it right, indeed that – whisper it – perhaps there is no right. It comes to us all and can leave even the hardiest of ex-pats breathlessly running for the nearest little slice of home they can find (for me, it’s always the WHSmith bookshop on rue de Rivoli).

Culture shock is about the loss of the familiar, it’s about feeling like you’re swimming in ambiguity and the unknown.

At its deepest level, it’s a feeling of loss of identity and having one’s values questioned simply by living among people who do not share them. Culture shock can be brutal and – in my experience of nearly 19 years in Paris – can strike at any time since new cultural differences come to the fore as we advance through the various stages of life.

What are you saying?

However inevitable culture shock may be though, it can be anticipated, alleviated and managed. To go back to our fish joke, the first step towards managing culture shock is taking a look at the water in which you are swimming – figuring out the values that underpin the society that shaped you. One portal into decoding your country’s values is its treasury of proverbs and sayings. These often carry deeply held beliefs and messages. Numerous American business coaching clients have told me that the question they apply when assessing potential suppliers is “What have you done for me lately?” This speaks to a value of performance and productivity, and not resting on your laurels. The Mexican saying “Mi casa su casa” reveals values around hospitality, openness and inclusion. What sayings does your culture use?

Nuance is crucial, of course. Every individual is different, and here we are talking in broad brushstrokes. So why not think a little about your own personal values? They will influence how you experience other cultures too. So, think of a time in your life when you felt fantastic, like you were functioning at 100% and exactly where you needed to be. What were you doing, who was involved, what impact was made? Alternatively, think of a time when you were angrier than you ever thought possible. Often, anger is a result of a strongly held value being violated in some way. For each memory, consider what’s at stake and what makes it so vivid.

More than a slogan

Now you can turn your attention to the culture of your host country. What does this nation hold dear? What truths seem self-evident to its citizens? What are its major proverbs? Does it have a slogan? The easiest way to start in France is with the classic liberté, égalité, fraternité – these are far more than just aspirational words in my experience. They truly underpin the way the society is structured and run. I see liberté in the “lack” (to a British mind) of school uniform. I see égalité in the country’s healthcare and social security systems. I see fraternité in the very strong (again, from a British perspective) unions and workers’ groups.

Seeing values behind behaviour

Seeing the values that a country is upholding in its way of organising and doing things can help you to see its innocence or neutrality. This can in turn help with culture shock. Faced with behaviour that we find odd, a reply we consider rude, or a process that seems twisted, it can truly help to look for the value that is being honoured.

When my daughter started school, I complained to my husband that the list of required fournitures scolaires was ridiculously specific. We couldn’t just get notebooks; the school specified the size, number of pages, and even how big the little squares that covered each page had to be. To my British mind, this was some kind of nanny state on crack; to my husband, it was simply a way of ensuring that – to the extent possible – every child started school with the same stuff, the same possibilities, in other words, égalité.

Becoming more aware of your own culture and decoding the beliefs and values underpinning the culture of your host country will not necessarily change how you think or feel. But it will make you more tolerant and better equipped to deal with clashes and misunderstandings when they arise. Knowing where your culture and that of your host country might be at odds can help you anticipate difference and – literally – be less shocked by it.

Cultural awareness can get you a step closer to operating like an anthropologist, which is a perspective and way of functioning that I think every ex-pat should cultivate since it is a position from which we can observe and be fascinated by our subject while also being able to see it for what it is – not better or worse than us, just different.

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