Mala Subramaniam's Blog

Mala Subramaniam's Blog

My thoughts about leadership, communications and career development

Cultural Competence

Originally published at: https://www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2015/09/Cultural-Competence?mktcops=c.global-hrd~c.sr-leader&mktcois=c.~c.global-workforce-development~c.management-development&mkttag=c.original-official-blog-cat-astd-membership

Borders are quickly blurring, so cross-cultural training must become an integral part of all management programs.
Like it or not, it is a global economy and borders are disappearing. Your customers and resources are scattered across the globe: products await parts from a manufacturer in another country, customer service is handled elsewhere, some employees are located in remote locations, your suppliers and business partners are from unfamiliar countries, you are reporting to someone who does not speak your language or speak it the way you are accustomed in your business interactions, and your company is owned by a company from another country.

Everyone in the organization needs to understand how to interact with subordinates, peers, supervisors, clients, suppliers, and other key constituents from different cultures. Many organizations, both small and large, have outsourced parts of IT, customer service, manufacturing, telemarketing, and many other services to suppliers around the world for financial reasons and availability of specific talent.

So, to offer cultural awareness training as a separate program is ignoring the presence of culture in every fiber of human interaction in the business world. The talent development team cannot ignore the need to prepare the organization for this global economy.

Ill-prepared

Consider this situation: A manager is confident that the two-hour cultural awareness session she attended has prepared her for her job, until she starts working in a multicultural set-up. How does this manager apply the cultural awareness training in meetings, marketing, negotiations, supervising, and every other touch point in the business value chain? That was not part of the training.

Culture influences behavior in all aspects of workplace interactions. How well you play in this global economy is a function of your cultural competency. However, technical and professional competencies sometimes take a back seat.

Thus, it is a strategic imperative that every management training program address the question: How do you employ the techniques and learning content, which work well in your culture, if you are sitting across the room from people raised in other cultures? Take this quiz and see why:

    • Is the person in the next office from Germany, France, or Japan?
    • Are all your team members from your country?
    • Have you been in a meeting with someone who has an accent you could not understand?
    • Do you wonder why a co-worker stands up when you walk to his desk?
    • Are you confused by the outcome of a negotiation with an Asian partner?

If you answered yes to more than half of these questions, you should understand why it is critical to know how to work with people from other cultures.

Culture touches every part of the business

Making the product and marketing, selling, and servicing it can happen anywhere in the world. Making assumptions, judging, and drawing incorrect conclusions when interacting with people from other cultures can cause project delays, poor business deals, customer defection, and major financial losses.

Let’s face it: A country’s culture influences the behavior of its people, whether they remain in the country, travel, or migrate to another country. It affects family, social, and workplace behaviors. National culture supersedes corporate culture. Culture manifests itself in a person’s purchasing habits, approach to projects and problems, participation in meetings, negotiations, recruiting, management style, and every other aspect of the job or business.

Here are a few examples to illustrate this point:

        • Meetings—Some countries use meetings to make decisions, while others use them to celebrate decisions made behind closed doors. Some start with an agenda, yet others are offended by one.
        • Communications—A colleague’s indirect way of conveying a negative message so that he does not hurt your feelings is in contrast with your “get to the point” style that he finds rude, not direct.
        • Negotiation—In some Asian countries, negotiation starts after the contract has been signed. Paper takes a back seat to people.

A true learning need

A two-hour lecture on cultural gaps will not suffice. People need to understand the role culture plays at work and how they can leverage the strengths of each individual to raise efficiency and productivity. Fixing an accent issue is a Band-Aid to a deeper and larger wound.

It takes me back to the era of total quality management, where one division was saddled with the responsibility of launching and managing it. Despite the valiant efforts of this division, TQM failed to make an impact on customer satisfaction, which should have been the goal of the company and the mantra of every employee.

Change happened when TQM was re-invented as change management, was sponsored by the C-suite, and touched every fiber of the company. It was no longer a buzzword with poster boards, trophies, plaques, cups, and mugs; it became an integral part of the organization. When customer satisfaction was on the strategic dashboard affecting incentives and every employee was trained, change happened. Change was the theme of training. As a certified change management specialist, I speak from my experience.

Culture is like a thread that runs across the organization with a latent impact on business outcomes. Organizations don’t recognize it. But if they do, they deal with it by offering as-needed cross-cultural training—perhaps a two-hour or half-day on-site or virtual workshop, if there is money in the budget. The training program is offered to those employees who are traveling abroad or working directly with international counterparts. Pain is felt when a company is acquired by a company from another country. Acquisition by itself can cause confusion between two corporate cultures, and it can be totally disorienting when the two are from two diverse national cultures. So, management training must integrate culture.

A strategic imperative

The time has come for cultural awareness to become a strategic imperative, cascading through the organization to create better understanding. The talent development function should adopt the principles in all its training efforts, starting with the bank teller who greets a customer from another country to the person facing the intimidating prospect of negotiating a contract with a room full of people from different countries.

Sometimes people walk away with the mistaken conclusion that the negotiation failed because the terms were unacceptable. It is inconceivable to them that perhaps the reason was a cultural mistake—they were addressing their comments to a manager when his boss was present, making the boss lose face.

I am not suggesting training be given on each country. But exposure to behaviors triggered by culture, along with the theory behind gaps in communication, will sensitize people. For example, why are some countries more process driven while some cling to relationships? Why can’t some countries start a project without knowing the people working with them? Why are others comfortable interacting with a team of unfamiliar people, focusing on the project at hand? What are some broad guidelines in working with people of different cultures?

For optimum efficiency and productivity, train managers in your organization to work with a multicultural workforce, management team, supplier base, and customers. Deliver a comprehensive program that identifies challenges and opportunities present in global relationships that affect productivity.

Five-step guide

Step 1: Global assessment. Identify the demographics (country) of your customers, suppliers, and employees. Most companies probably have some of this information in a database. Then, gather input on:

        • issues employees are facing in cross-cultural interactions
        • damage done by these issues to business outcomes
        • how they handle these issues now.

Step 2: Program development. Build a list of cross-cultural gaps by country, damage to business, and current handling of gaps. Then work with country experts in your company or outside consultants to:

        • Understand the reason for the gaps—understand the country.
        • Determine tools and techniques to close the gaps (dos and don’ts).
        • Implement case studies, teamwork, and role plays.

Step 3: Create modules. Prioritize issues by extent of damage to business outcomes. Sort it by cultural differences in values, behaviors, and communications, such as:

        • business values (work ethic and business culture)
        • manager-subordinate relationship (decision making, delegation, evaluations, recognition, taking initiative, sharing ideas)
        • client and supplier relationships (perception of clients and suppliers, expectations, decisions, and loyalty)
        • communication (verbal and written communication, and conflict resolution/negotiation)
        • recruiting and retaining (motivating employees).

Step 4: Integrate modules. Determine which of the modules from Step 3 are applicable in your management training programs and apply the modules as appropriate. For instance, training on supplier management could include modules on cultural gaps in work ethic, business values, motivation, conflict resolution, negotiation, and communication in general.

Step 5: Delivery and follow-up. Ensure that trainers facilitate integrated training—content should address the theory behind culture, application in the workplace, and country differences. Some tips:

        • Bring in a country expert for Q&A.
        • Schedule follow-up webinars in three months to reinforce learning and address issues.
        • Measure success and revise programs accordingly.

Optimizing global business relationships

Bridging the communications gap across cultures has to be effective in all aspects of work, such as leadership, sales, marketing, negotiation, operations, and customer service. Managing the multiple work or management styles that companies contend with across geographies, businesses, functions, and projects can be imposing.

What works in one culture may be unacceptable or ineffective in other cultures. Some cultures will not share with you the reasons. It always will remain a mystery, leading to wrong conclusions. That’s why cultural training has to be an enhancement to other training, and participants should be able to apply the learned principles in their job.

CULTURAL MIX-UPS

Examples of business scenarios where culture has direct application:

        • Selling to a global customer—likes, dislikes, offensive communications, decision-making process.
        • Marketing—packaging products, branding, advertising, and public relations.
        • Customer service—greetings, responding to questions, accents.
        • Supplier selection and management—IT support outsourcing to countries like India and China, miscommunications causes delays in deliverables.

CULTURAL TRAINING INTEGRATION

Culture cannot be separated from training programs. Below is a sample list of management training courses. If these programs do not integrate cultural training, they are not preparing participants for the global economy.

      • business writing
      • communication skills
      • customer service
      • human resource management
      • client relations
      • interpersonal skills
      • leadership
      • supervisory skills
      • marketing
      • presentation skills
      • project management
      • purchasing
      • sales
      • strategic planning

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