Yesterday, I taught a workshop on cultural intelligence to a group of consultants from all around the world. In my class was a lovely lady from Germany who told me that she wrote a book on the international language of business that would soon be translated into English. When I inquired about her book, she told me that in her view, to be effective across cultures, people would have to embrace new behaviors that would ensure their success in the global arena. Her method is based on the Esperanto model where several languages are combined together to create a new one nobody can claim. When pressed for more details, I quickly realized however that her view of global success is mainly based on her cultural assumptions of what is important to succeed in business: tight time management, direct communication, flat reporting system, profit driven, etc. As such, becoming globally minded means becoming Westernized.
Recently, my work has revolved around assisting companies to understand why project management methods such as Agile create so many internal problems. When taken across cultures, I notice that few people in the world fully understand how powerful the cultural make up of each employee really is. The reality is that, according to experts like Genevieve Bell, chief anthropologist at Intel, culture does trump strategy and it is indeed essential to invest the necessary amount of time and energy in understanding the host country to pursue any across-culture business venture.
Recently, I had the opportunity to test that knowledge first hand training and consulting within one of the largest multinationals in the world, realizing that even at the highest level of management, people still confuse culture with ill will or an IQ level that would not allow employees from a certain culture to perform within the Western parameters. When I suggested that those non-Western teams were in need of support and coaching to fully grasp the Western meaning of initiative-taking, upfront communication, or articulating concepts such as having a plan A, plan B and Plan C in place, my suggestion was received with a disdained attitude that clearly demonstrated that after two years of working together those foreign teams were either fundamentally challenged or purely incapable of improving. The truth of the matter is quite different and I can attest that many teams in India, for example, where I was last, have embraced the cultural impositions their U.S. employers forced upon them fully. Compared to their fathers, brothers and uncles who are not in the high-tech industry, those Indian employees are already 80 percent Americanized. The problem lies in the fact that very few people in the United States have the capacity to appreciate how much change has been implemented as very few North Americans are aware of the Indian culture per se. As such, instead of appreciating the efforts invested, they judge and focus on the distance that remains to be traveled. This comes as a disheartening criticism to the teams located in the host country and is perceived as a lack of appreciation and understanding toward their own culture.
As the world becomes more and more accessible from our keyboard, I feel that the ability to get out of our comfort zone and reach across the cultural aisle resides in the heart of each of us. Realizing that each expectation we voice, each criticism we formulate, each deadline we set, each problem we solve is rooted in the specific set of skills with which our culture provided us. It is also evident that philosophical concepts such as trust and respect are lived, experienced and demonstrated differently from one culture to another. Having had the experience to work for several companies headquartered in different parts of the world, I can attest that each corporate culture duplicates the national culture from which its leaders originate, copying the family unit model that was used to teach fundamental values to children, such as respect, integrity, honesty and trust.
Not realizing that each global employee brings with him his own understanding of the aforementioned core values is setting multinational companies up for failure. Wrong expectations are articulated through the use of flawless processes, forgetting that behind each process is a human being who will apply his own core values to the method.
In my view, the solution lies in the fact that we must recognize that today's employees are the guinea pigs of the 21st century global economy and that practically none of those employees were adequately trained to instantaneously interact across cultures. Indeed, very few schools across the world prepare students for today's work environment, transforming most multinationals into challenging revolving doors and frustrated leaders who do not know how to reverse the trend.
Displaying a true global mindset does not reside in forcing people to embrace a Germanic or U.S. mindset. All the opposite. It means welcoming that each culture brings its own set of solutions and that each approach has merit. It also means that employees need support in developing the global voice and heart they were not born with, as it is only through respect and understanding that we will together achieve meaningful and long-lasting results. It is often not through the established channel with which we are so comfortable dealing in the West, but rather through the exploration of other applications that also give us the opportunity to expand our horizon. By honoring cultural differences to achieve effective working relationships, we can be the change we wish to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi wisely claimed.