Mala Subramaniam's Blog

Mala Subramaniam's Blog

My thoughts about leadership, communications and career development

Cross-Cultural Connection in the Workplace

Originally published at: https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Global-HRD-Blog/2015/07/Cross-Cultural-Connection-in-the-Workplace

Two Companies, Two Cultures

 

Mergers and acquisitions often cause great anxiety and confusion among the employees of both companies. Corporate cultures are different. For instance, the acquiring company could be very structured, with strict hours, reporting layers, and budget approvals, whereas the acquired company may have a more entrepreneurial style. Clashes will inevitably occur, affecting business outcomes, and key contributors may quit in frustration.

Now think about how this culture clash is magnified when the two companies are based in different countries. In these situations, understanding and accepting cultural differences is key to managing change. The learning and development and HR teams should deliver cross-cultural training before any mergers, acquisitions, or partnerships take effect. This shows the employees that management cares and wants to ensure that all employees make the transition successfully.

The easiest way to understand our differences is to first identify our similarities. In the following story, I used my familiarity with both American and Indian culture to effectively facilitate a series of workshops for employees of a U.S. company that had been acquired by a company based in India. Note that you can apply my experience to any interaction between diverse cultures across the globe.

Open Hostility

The trainer who preceded me in these workshops warned me. In a text, she said her efforts had been met with hostility and stony silence, and she had gone back to her hotel disillusioned. However, I thought the anger might be a front for the employees’ fear of the unknown and uncertainty about the future. While I could not allay their fears of job insecurity, I could address their cultural anxieties.

I walked into a room full of people who knew very little about India. Some had never even been to an Indian restaurant. I was dressed in a sari, my standard uniform for multicultural talks to U.S. companies working with Indian outsourcing partners. It helps underscore my role as a cultural goodwill ambassador.

Coffee and Muffins


I began by speaking about my experience at my hotel.“How is everyone? You all look like you had a nice breakfast. I am starving; my hotel does not serve food. It made me nostalgic for the blueberry muffins from a sidewalk café in NYC that I used to enjoy on my walk from Port Authority to Park Avenue. And, my morning cup of Chennai kaapi, or coffee, with a froth of milk on top.”

My small story sparked a lively discussion about baked goods and breakfasts. Some talked about the biscuits they baked at home. One kind lady promised to bring me some the following morning (and she did). One gentleman asked me, “Hey Mala, what the heck is Sinaai kapi—sounds interesting.” That was when I went into my talk about India, the biggest cultural differences between our two countries, ways of leveraging the strengths of both cultures, and finding common ground for getting along.

Hospitality: Our Common Ground

When I talked about Indian hospitality, a few people in the class who were from the South spoke with great pride about southern hospitality. I agreed and said: “You know; you are so right. This morning our shuttle driver, who is also from the South, brought a lunch bag for me. In it were a couple of muffins, vegetarian sandwiches, and water bottles. He gave it to me saying, ‘I don’t want you starving here, and you have no time between classes. I want you to leave this town feeling good.’ I was touched beyond words. Strangely, I had the same experience in a hotel in Jaipur, India, when I did my workshop there.”

I asked the class: Can you see the parallels in both cultures?

By mixing culture theory with stories, case studies, and practical application, I was able to connect with those nice people in class. If you ask your foreign counterparts about their birthplace, language, food, and festivals and share similar information, you will get a lot more out of your work together.

If we fail to help employees of both companies acknowledge and accept their differences and find common ground, we will create an environment in which even the best processes and leaders will struggle to succeed.

Quick Tips

  • Anticipate resistance on both sides.
  • Acknowledge the fears and anxieties behind the resistance.
  • Engage and build rapport.
  • Find common ground to diffuse resistance.
  • Connect to achieve goals.

 

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