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Building Cross Cultural Intelligence

By Maya Townsend, MSOD

Moving Beyond Cultural Cruise Control

The problem many Americans face when we work cross-culturally is that we assume that we won't have to think about culture. The work will naturally fall into line, we think. Then, we reconsider when things don't go as expected. For example, we discover that our American and Indian teams have completely different definitions of training and, as a result, we're 6 months behind schedule. Or, we develop our revenue estimates based on the assumption of a quick product adoption in Japan, only to discover that building relationships takes much longer than anticipated.

The first, and best, way to succeed cross-culturally is to turn off the cultural cruise control that tries to fool us into thinking that all cultures are the same. Instead, we need to build cultural competency.

What's Culture?

Cultural competency begins with understanding what culture actually means. At the most superficial level, culture consists of artifacts: pictures on an organization's wall, the way a team creates an agenda, and how meetings begin and end. These are the overt manifestations of culture. They encompass behaviors, structures, systems, procedures, and rules.

Underneath artifacts lies the next level of culture: norms. Norms are unwritten rules that guide behavior. When we attend a stereotypical French meeting, for example, the meeting begins with a formal introduction. Then people enjoy small talk about politics and local scandals, after which the meeting begins. For an American who is used to a quick, 5-minute opener before beginning a meeting, the 20 minutes expected by a French national can be frustrating.

Deeper within a culture is its core values: the shared ideas about what is important. To return to our previous example, we'll look at the overlap between French and American values. Both share a love for justice, science, liberty, equality, and the arts. Yet, French culture has values that can stymie an American, such as formal manners, obsession with logic, cautiousness, and savoir faire. Americans were bred on cowboy legends which encourage instinct, informality and impulsiveness. So what happens when French and American companies attempt to collaborate?

Building Cultural Competency

Savvy cross-cultural workers take the time to build their cross-cultural competency in order to form productive working relationships. The first step is getting to know the partner culture. To build knowledge, consider:

  • Reading about the country. Good sources of knowledge come from the local library; bookstores such as www.interculturalpress.com; and websites such as www.adbi.org (for information about Asia and the Pacific) and www.executiveplanet.com
  • Reading about cross-cultural business. Helpful resources include When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures by Richard D. Lewis and Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business by David C. Thomas and Kerr Inkson
  • Watching foreign films from that culture
  • Reading novels by people from that culture or set in that culture

Also important is to increase knowledge about American, or home, culture. That will help raise awareness about what we take for granted. As Americans, we have cultural norms and values like fast-pace, risk-taking, direct conversation, acting on hunches, individualism, and egalitarianism that can get in our way when we work on global teams. For example, a Mexican team may be shocked by informal and democratic decision-making styles. A Spanish group may be offended when a meeting begins without taking the time to talk about family or when an American insists on starting the meeting at 2 PM sharp, even if everyone hasn't arrived. Having knowledge of our own cultural norms and values, as well as those of our partner culture, helps us identify and resolve cross-cultural conflicts.

The next step is to be mindful when working with that culture. It's important to remain aware of how cultural norms and values might be showing up in the work. Clues that a cultural conflict may be present are:

  • Body language: People look uncomfortable, even if they agree verbally
  • Lack of follow up: People agree, yet don't take action
  • Absenteeism: People don't attend meetings or return calls

Once we have some clues that a cultural conflict may be present, we can evaluate how to manage it. Our response will be situational, based on our norms, the norms of the partner culture, and the context.

The final step is to adjust behavior. Small behavior changes can go a long way towards building cross-cultural productivity and performance. For example, taking the time in Japan to carefully study a business card honors the card giver and shows respect. Many of these behavior adjustments are country-specific. However, there are some general principles to follow:

  • Avoid idioms and acronyms. Americans use an incredible number of idioms in the English language, such as "let's nail it," "low-hanging fruit," "line of sight," and "hit the bulls-eye." These idioms can be baffling for one not accustomed to American slang. In addition, many American companies seem to be addicted to acronyms: CMM, MBO, P&L, GAAP, and so on. Taking the time to choose words and define acronyms goes a long way towards building common understanding of goals and expectations.
  • Check for understanding. This is a good habit to cultivate, regardless of where we work. Checking for understanding, at the end of a meeting or phone call, involves reiterating expectations, action items, and follow up steps. When building a relationship, it is important to reserve time at the end of every interaction to confirm shared understanding. As relationships mature and understandings develop, these conversations can become shorter.
  • Find an ally. One of the best gifts we can give ourselves when working cross-culturally is an ally. An ally is someone who can help interpret what we see and experience. Ideally, the ally is one with cross-cultural, or even American, business experience who can more easily understand some of our confusions, frustrations, and expectations. We can go to our ally for guidance when we need a cultural coach, an interpreter, or simply a sympathetic ear.

Building cultural competency takes time. During the process, we may feel alternatively confused, off-center, and unauthentic. Our partners probably feel the same way. By continuing to build knowledge, be mindful, and adjust behaviors, we can move through the awkwardness to true partnership and performance.

For more information on this topic, as well as how Corporate Education Group can help optimize your organization's performance, contact us or call 1.800.288.7246 (US only) or +1.978.649.8200.

About the Author:

Maya Townsend, MSOD, is a Trainer and Consultant for Corporate Education Group. Maya is also Founder and Lead Consultant for Partnering Resources, where she specializes in leadership, strategy and collaboration. During her career, Maya has successfully designed and facilitated training programs to over 5000 people in groups of 3 to 130 in the public and corporate sectors. Highly intuitive, analytical, and imaginative, Maya works at all levels, from CEOs to line workers, to develop the relationships, ideas, connections, and interdependencies that shift an organization to the next level of productivity and performance.