EDITOR’S PICK9,939 viewsJan 8, 2019, 06:43am
Three Things To Stop Doing When Working Across Cultures
Just like fish might not know they’re swimming in the water, we’re often unaware of the cultural surroundings we move through. GETTY
Doing business can be challenging enough with people from our own culture. Doing business across cultures adds a whole new layer of complexity. But the reality of modern business is that we work with colleagues, customers and business partners from diverse backgrounds, across the country and across the world.
So how to make sure that our business interactions are a success? How to not let cultural differences and communication challenges get in the way? To be truly effective when working globally requires a shift in mindset, and making that shift means first dropping some of our pre-existing views.
Working more effectively on the global stage is more than a matter of learning. Unlearning is required to make that mindset shift.
Here are three things you need to unlearn.
1. Drop Your Common Sense
Culture can be defined as “the way we do things around here,” with every culture having its own norms and standards of expected behavior. Of course, those are not always apparent to someone from outside that culture, but they may also not be apparent to those of us inside our own culture.
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Just like fish might not know they’re swimming in the water, we’re often unaware of the cultural surroundings we move through and of how that influences our assumptions about the right way to behave. We all have assumptions about the “right” way to do things and all those assumptions, accrued over our lives and influenced by our culture, is what we think of as common sense.
As Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” This is true between individuals, and even more true between cultures. What is common sense in one culture is rarely common sense in another.
So that is the first thing to drop when working globally, our common sense.
Before we can think about cultural differences, we need to first understand our own cultural assumptions and our common sense. Drop your assumptions, have an open mind and ask yourself “Why do we behave this way?” How do people in your culture disagree, build trust or view formality?
Identifying your common sense—and being ready to drop it in cross-cultural settings—is only a first step, but it is a valuable benchmark. Once you have that benchmark, then you can be ready to stop relying on what is common sense in your culture when working globally. You can begin to understand where any major gaps lie and where your own common sense won’t work.
This mindset has served me well working in Tokyo. When I’m in a business situation and some behavior seems to be going counter to my expectations, I take that as a sign to pause, take a step back and question what’s going on and whether my assumptions are leading me to miss something. For example, say there’s a long period of silence in a meeting. Has something uncomfortable been said? That would be my assumption as a Canadian. But when I drop that assumption and go with the flow by staying silent—rather than speaking out to fill what feels to me like awkward silence—I learn the value of unspoken communication and silence in Japanese business culture.
2. Drop The Golden Rule
Most cultures have some variation of the Golden Rule: “treat other people how you would want to be treated yourself.” If you don’t want someone to be a jerk to you, it helps to not be a jerk to others.
So when working across cultures, the Golden Rule should be a great rule to live by, right?
Actually, it’s a terrible idea.
Why? Because of those differences in common sense and assumptions about what is the right way to treat people and be treated.
Our different contexts and backgrounds lead to different ideas about what is the best way to treat other people, and so how we expect to be treated. If you treat people from other cultures by your standards, by how you expect to be treated, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Conversely, don’t expect those from other cultures to treat you in the ways you expect.
A better idea is to replace the Golden Rule with the Platinum Rule, which is “treat other people how they would want to be treated.” Treat your counterparts by their standards, not by yours.
Applying that Platinum Rule requires studying other cultures, to learn what is considered the appropriate way to behave and how people in that culture like to be treated. Not an easy thing to do, but with time and practice we can learn about other cultures, learn about our counterparts and then turn that into action. Understand how others negotiate, communicate, disagree, build and maintain trust. Then make sure you can stretch your own behavior—and suppress your assumptions—as much as possible to understand your counterparts’ culture; know when to shake hands or bow, speak up or be silent.
Studying other cultures is a necessity and using that knowledge in tandem with the Platinum Rule will start you on the path to cross-cultural competence. But to be truly effective, you need to make one final shift in mindset.
3. Drop The Emphasis On Differences
When working across cultures, there is a natural tendency to focus on differences, as that’s where we’re most likely to step on landmines and encounter challenges. A lot of the literature and training on cross-cultural communication dwells on gaps and differences, but understanding differences is not enough to build meaningful business relationships across borders.
To communicate and collaborate effectively, we need to build stronger bridges by also thinking about cultural similarities. Don’t focus too much on cultural challenges and what separates us, also consider the opportunities and what unites us.
Do that through finding what we have in common with others, just as we do with people in our own culture. Finding commonalities and similarities is the way to build meaningful business relationships within a culture and across cultures, so look for similarities between your culture and that of your counterpart.
Even if we find few cultural commonalities, we can consider what we may have in common with our counterparts as individuals. Try to make a personal connection around common work experiences or even more basic things like food or hobbies. Get to know your counterparts as individuals, not simply as representatives of Country X. Find something you share and start building bridges from those commonalities. Regardless of cultural differences, we are all humans and share the same basic wishes and hopes.
By dropping these three things, you can shift your mindset and be a more effective global business leader. Everything that comes later—studying cultures and turning that into action—will work much better once you have made this mindset shift.