Cross-Cultural Connection in the Workplace

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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.


Cultural Competence

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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.


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.


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.


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

Am I Polite Enough for Your Country?

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What does politeness mean to you? Have you ever wondered if the other person thinks you’re as polite as you think you are?

These questions may seem too basic for you. However, they become important when dealing with people from other countries.

Mala’s Experience in India

I traveled 10,000 miles from the United States to India to learn an expensive lesson. I was conducting a cross-cultural training in India on a topic close to my heart: working with the United States.

I decided to have the handouts printed in India, taking for granted that it would be a simple task. I landed in Chennai and discovered that the print shop was closed for the holidays and I had no way of reaching anyone who worked there. I vaguely remembered the manager speaking of the holiday season. My sessions were done without handouts. I apologized to my client, explaining that I had asked the manager of the print shop if the handouts would be ready when I arrived and he replied, “Yes, madam.” My client laughed and said, “Mala, he was just being polite.”

So, why did the manager at the print shop not tell me directly that he could not deliver the handouts on that date? Indians consider it impolite to say NO to someone in authority—namely, a client. The NO was implied in earlier conversations when the print manager casually mentioned the holidays. Indians drop hints and couch their “NO” response in indirect speech and if you are from a culture accustomed to direct style, you pay the price for not reading in between the lines. Also, “yes,” in India does not mean agreement, it means: “I hear you, I am listening.

How do you tell an Indian that it is not polite to say Yes when you actually mean No. How do you work with this politeness?

Be specific. Ask clarifying questions. Affirm the responses. So, a better exchange would be; “When will my handouts be ready? I am arriving on November 5th. Can I come on November 6th to pick up the handouts? Do you have a direct reach phone?”

April’s Experience in Denmark

I was once asked to coach an expatriate American manager having difficulty with her Danish team. In fact, the atmosphere she had created between her and the team had gotten to a point where many were resigning. Even while our session was under way, she received a resignation from one of the team members.

She broke down in tears and asked me why it was happening. She could not understand why she was failing in her job in Denmark when she was a success story in the United States. She said that she was polite to her team and made an effort to immerse herself in the culture both professionally and socially.

She described her American work and communication styles, and we compared it with Danish work and communication styles. She found it difficult to accept that her idea of being polite was actually rude to Danes.

For example, she could not believe that asking team members what they had done over the weekend prior at the start of her Monday morning meetings was considered inappropriate and unprofessional. She thought it was a great way to get to know her team and Danish culture. However, had she known and accepted that Danes keep their professional and private lives separate, and that Danes are extremely efficient because of their direct communication style, she would have taken a different approach to her Monday meetings.

Bottom Line

Cross-cultural understanding has to be an integral part of all management training programs. Just because a person achieves success on a domestic level does not automatically mean that the person will succeed on a global level. To be successful in a global environment, it is critical to understand the work styles of a culture.

So ask yourself: What is polite to you? Have you ever done something that you perceived as polite but found that the other person misunderstood your actions? What did you do to salvage the situation?


Know the Country Before You Sign the Contract

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5 Tips to Working Successfully in India

You have signed the contract to work with an organization in India. Are you concerned, confused, and even frustrated because things are not going the way you planned? Before engaging in a business deal, it helps to get advice from someone who has experienced both cultures.

Here are five tips for working successfully in India:

  1. Don’t put your thoughts in your questions.
  2. Ask questions so that you get a direct response.
  3. Words convey different meanings in the United States and India.
  4. Respect the silence and acknowledge the work.
  5. No is not a word in the Indian vocabulary.

Note: In this blog post, Indian refers to someone who lives in India or someone who has recently moved to the United States from India.

Don’t Put Your Thoughts in Your Questions

You have someone on your team, Mala, who has recently moved to the United States from India. You need directions to the new office location, and ask her, “Should I take Route 5?” She knows Route 5 is congested at this time but she is likely to say, “Yes, take Route 5.” Why? People in India have a tendency to say what they think you want to hear. It is a sign of respect for someone in authority.

To use another example, if you really want an Indian to suggest ways to approach a marketing campaign, don’t ask, “Do you think we should use paid advertising?” Instead, ask, “What media do you think we should use?”

Ask Questions So That You Get a Direct Response

Indians also convey their messages in an indirect way. For instance, say you are a client manager based in New York. You are asking Mala, based in India, to participate in a conference call on Saturday. The conversation may go like this:

You: Mala, let’s discuss the project on our call on Saturday. We have reached an important milestone in the project.

Mala: Yes. It is an important milestone. We have to discuss the project.

You: Good.

Mala: My sister’s wedding on Sunday is going to be very grand, you know, and I am organizing it. It is in a remote village in India.

You: It’s all set then.

You and Mala did not come to an understanding. Based on this conversation, you think Mala will attend Saturday’s meeting. Mala is glad you understand why she can’t attend the meeting. She assumes that you are familiar with Indian culture—weddings in India last a few days, attendance of relatives is mandatory, and telephone connections in remote villages are unreliable.

Instead, ask questions so that you get a direct answer, like “Will you attend the meeting this Saturday?”

Words Convey Different Meanings in the United States and India

One culture’s “yes” is not the same as another culture’s. For example, Mala, who recently moved from India to the United States, works for a bank as a market research expert. She accompanies her boss to a meeting with key stakeholders. When they proceed to ask Mala questions about changes needed for a project, she smiles, nods, and says “yes” to each one.

Two weeks later, Mala’s boss realizes that her “yes” meant that she was listening, not that she agreed to make the changes discussed at the meeting. Mala’s boss lost two weeks of productive time and had to face the wrath of the stakeholders.

Clarify what the person means by the word yes. Mala’s boss would have avoided misunderstanding by asking, “Are you agreeing to make the changes?”

Respect the Silence and Acknowledge the Work

A person’s status has an enormous impact on communication in India. It is inconceivable for Indians to tell bosses or clients that they made an error in their work.

Mala leads the team in India. Tom is managing this team remotely from the United States. Mala notices that Tom failed to include an important update in the client meeting. She says nothing in the meeting, and quietly includes the update in the written report after the meeting. The client is annoyed and Tom conveys his disappointment that she did not bring that up in the meeting. Mala remains silent. She probably will never fix Tom’s omissions in the future because she thinks she did something disrespectful.

Client satisfaction is very important for Indian teams. Tom should convey to Mala that the client would be more satisfied if such updates are included in the meeting. He should also reassure Mala that her action would not be perceived as disrespectful.

The Word No Is Not in the Indian Vocabulary

Indians think it is impolite to say “no,” especially to a manager or client. For instance, Americans will directly say “I don’t know the directions to the restaurant” because they don’t want the other person to get lost. Indians, on the other hand, will give directions even if they have no idea where the restaurant is, and you will probably drive for a while and end up exactly where you started.

Sequential questioning helps. Ask if the person has heard of the restaurant. If he says “yes,” ask him the street name. Then ask for directions. Use same tactic in business situations.

Find Common Ground for Communication

Companies that outsource work to other countries experience delays, losses, and termination of business deals when they fail to recognize that the problems are not due to technical or management issues, but cross-cultural divides. Indians have exceptional technical know-how and intuitive problem-solving abilities. Creating cultural awareness will help businesses leverage these skills and achieve their goals.

The best resources for learning about these differences are works by Gerard Hendrik (Geert) Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist well known for his pioneering research of cross-cultural groups and organizations. For more information, visit

When I speak on this topic, people comment that they have had similar experiences with people from other parts of Asia. Have you had similar experiences? Please share them in the comments.


HEADSUP – Words Convey Different Meanings in Cultures

In my recent trip to India, it dawned on me that business communications can really go off-balance with usage of English words in different cultures. Let us take USA and India.

Commercials or Terms? I was negotiating with someone in India on a business contract. The client’s lawyer sent a brief email stating, “I don’t get involved until the commercials are over.” I was wondering where do “commercials” come into play here? In USA, commercials mean advertisements. I was concerned and my client replied, “In India we sometimes refer to pricing and related terms of contract as commercials, i.e. terms pertaining to our deal. It comes from the word commerce or trade. Don’t worry.”

Inclinations or Hint? It was our team celebration dinner. Do you have any inclination about the dinner location, asked my Indian colleague? I said, No, I don’t have any inclinations.  In USA, we would have asked, “Do you have any idea or clue where we are going for dinner?” I thought he meant, preference. Of course, I did know the dinner location.

Club – We were scheduling trainings for teams of people. Coordinator wrote back, “let us club the managers…..” Had I not been teaching multicultural communications, I would have seen this as offensive and wondered why she wanted to club them [strike them!]. I knew the phrase “clubbing” is used in India to mean grouping people.

Dictionary definition of “club” as a verb: getting people in a group OR striking them with club! 

Trouble in communications happens when people don’t ask for clarifications. Indians sometimes think it is impolite or rude to ask for clarification, particularly when interacting with clients. This cultural trait causes serious problems.

Client-facing professionals need competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence is an imperative for strategic thinking of client-facing professionals

Client-facing professionals [CFP’s] can bring in more business if they are perceived as trusted advisors by their clients. How can CFPs inspire trust if they know very little about their client’s market? A key piece of intelligence is client’s competition. They need to be trained to gain this knowledge before they interact with clients.

I often hear complaints from companies that the onsite outsourcing team [client-facing professionals] working on their projects are very transaction-driven. They do not share new thoughts, ideas or solutions. How can they be expected to provide solutions if they do not understand the client’s business? Yes, sometimes cultural barriers may keep the team from being solution-driven. However, the overriding factor is lack of market insights. They work in a vacuum.  They become transaction driven and not solution driven. Negotiations with clients become event based and not relationship driven. Arming them with intelligence and training them to use it is a win-win proposition to the client and service provider.

Do you agree? Please share your comments. If you wish to know more about how to engage CFPs in their business by arming them with intelligence, please send email to mala@mktinsite for full copy of article.

Trust Your Employees and treat them like Adults

Many organizations claim they are flat. But very few truly are. When most describe flat organizations, they think of an open door policy, everyone sitting in cubicles, being easily approachable etc. However, this does not mean that they are a ‘flat’ organization. Even in such organizations, when employees are asked how often they interact with the top leaders of the organization, the results are surprisingly low. At best they may have a good connection with their second level manager (their manager’s manager). In such organizations, management still drives all decisions and employees are told what to do. They have little or no say in what goes on in the company.

When I talk about a flat organization, I generally refer to an organization where employees are treated like adults and they are trusted. The managers believe that employees’ actions are in alignment with the best interests of the organization. Their judgment is not questioned. Top organizations also encourage feedback from all employees. Everyone is encouraged to think about how to improve existing processes (to make their work easier and the customers experience better). Such expressions of ideas are generally manifested through specific days when employees’ ideas are celebrated.

The result of treating employees like adults is that they feel valued and they know that their opinion matters. They are also more autonomous and are more involved in their job. While some people may take advantage of this autonomy, the overall positives outweigh the negatives.

How does your organization treat you? Let me know in the comments below!

How to plan your career

Most interviews include the questions: “What is your short term goal (for next 2 years)?” and “What is your long term goal (for next 5 years)?” While most candidates have a prepared answer for this, how many of them actually have a plan?

How many times have you seen people leave jobs saying that they were not satisfied with the work? But is it always only the organization’s/management’s fault? Or did the employee just do whatever he/she is told and not think or plan about where their career should go next? It’s hard to blame the employees either. It is easy to get carried away with the daily routines and lose sight of the big picture (their career goals).

In order to have a successful and satisfying professional career, you must plan it. For that, you need to set career goals. Be honest with yourself. You can put down multiple goals if you are not sure of what you want to achieve or where you want to be. Eventually, as you gain more experience, things will get clearer and you will become more focused. Once you set your goals, you need to revisit and revise them regularly.

In order to do that, I suggest a simple “hack”. Just create a recurring calendar event every three months with the title “Self-evaluation”. This forces you to think about your career. It forces you to ask questions like “Am I on the right track to achieve my career goals?”, “Is what I am doing aligned with my career goals?”,  “Is this what I want to do in the long term?” etc. Then you can self-evaluate and make the appropriate changes if necessary. This also forces you to see if your goals are aligned with the organization/management goals. If not, it might be time for a change.

Do you agree with what I just said? Do you have any other tips for career planning? Share them with me in the comments below.

7 Critical Steps in Market Intelligence

Let’s define Market intelligence first – it is the “aha” moment in the market research process, when you identify the patterns after you have scanned the results from primary research, secondary research, and competitive intelligence. The patterns lead you to some conclusions. Most often in companies, this is a fragmented effort. The primary researcher presents results and recommendations, the secondary researcher sends his report and CI comes in contradicting all of the above. The decision-maker gives up and goes by his guts. Naming the department as Market Intelligence or Insights and combining all three units under one head, or placing an analytical integrating group will solve this problem. Or else, you end up calling someone like me to make sense of it all!

There’s a sequence of logical thought that needs to happen in the intelligence process – I call it the 7-Step MI process. This process, taught in the Market Insights training, will also require you to explore existing research and different avenues for securing the research to get to the desired results.


Audience and Your Journey

At the end of many business presentations, audience walk away with their own interpretations and messages. People in the audience take their own journeys, and not the journey of the presenter, since the destination is not apparent. Speakers miss the golden opportunity to accomplish the stated objective for each presentation. Why? Most fall into the unfortunate category of “data dump” and fail in clarity of the critical message – the end in sight.