Intercultural Challenges–How Can We Work Together?

by Anders Fogelstrom on January 7, 2013

Intercultural corporationsIn the old days, the definition of an international company used to be that of an enterprise which exported and perhaps had sales subsidiaries outside its home market.

It was rare – except at the big well-known multinationals – to have foreign colleagues in the office corridors. Everyone understood his or her fellow workmates when exchanging small talk around the water cooler or coffee machine. Body language, grunts and silences – all communicated messages loud and clear to everyone.

All that is now a thing of the past – even small and medium sized companies have global supply chains, foreign shareholders, and integrated business partnerships with companies on far off continents. Management teams and boards are getting multinational. Ideas – good and especially silly ones – zigzag with the speed of light between all corners of the globe.

There are many different ways to organize and run an enterprise. Each national culture harbors some predominating organizational structures.

Fons TrompenaarsThe findings of the intercultural management specialist Fons Trompenaars shows that « there is no significant correlation with any one single corporate culture and business performance, i.e. there is no ‘best’ single corporate culture”.

Every CEO previously had the ambition to be adapted to his national, natural environment. Managers have built coherent structures that interact with local behavior, history, expectations and mindsets. Employees and customers feel cozy in such surroundings. In short: “we are the best, all others are strange”.

So – what happens when History (this sounds like Hegel) take the national organizations and brutally throw them into a global setting, where they are expected to cooperate with formerly distant nationalities and their seemingly odd behavior patterns? The barbarians are inside the gates.

In post merger integration, intercultural management training is often seen as the poor youngest orphan, who gets the meager bowl of soup at the end. The IT systems, the logistics, and the remuneration grids all these things are concrete and measurable. They get all management focus and priority.

Louise RoyMy friend Louise Roy (among other positions, she has been responsible for the Americas at Air France) from Montreal has coined the abbreviation SSS: Soft Skills for Success. She finds the interpersonal “soft” skills crucial.

Many – the figure tree quarters is often quoted – of attempted mergers and acquisitions fail due to cultural factors.

The long line of failed mergers notwithstanding; top management tends to underestimate the cultural challenges. The idea being: “We are all international nowadays, so we can work together without problems. Same Nike, same iPhone and the same Coke Zero. All bound together by business English. “

Again, Fons Trompenaars findings – based upon 80 000 cases from 100 countries – proves this to be an optimistic illusion: national culture is still the major deciding factor for behavior in business.

Businessman with devil or angelPushing a problem under the carpet rarely solves it. The difficulty tends to come back with even more vigor.

Awareness is the first and most important step when you deal with other cultures.

Another common error, apart from lack of awareness is to treat cultural differences as merely an anecdote. That is to concentrate on external behavior and amusing caricatures. The Englishman with rolled umbrella, bespoke Savile Row pinstriped suit and a bowler hat. The books at the airport “The twenty five things to know to make business with Tashkent” are catering to this approach.

The most difficult obstacles with doing business with other cultures are not the dress codes or the eating habits. The crucial factors are those hidden below the surface: the instincts, the subconscious – the routine ‘natural behaviors’’. The things that belong to the core of our identity – attitudes to such things as life, death, family, money, time, destiny, willpower, laws, moral, friendship, honesty.

Cultural differencesThe French – German linguist and philosopher Heinz Wismann writes in his recent book “Penser entre les langues” – Thinking between the languages – about cultural identity. When he is German he is not French. He is not living in a grey mixed cultural area; he feels defined as a German by not being French and the opposite. The advantage for him is to live “between the languages” – to be enriched by always seeing things a little bit from the outside.

One of the important positive effects of successful intercultural encounters is that is you can see yourself as in a mirror. You observe yourself from the outside. What used to be natural and normal proves to be as particular and odd as what your neighbor does. All is a question of perspective.

To be a good intercultural manager you need to be able to interact with other cultures, listen and observe, respect them, learn from them and see how you can create synergy effects. This means that you must create a give and take process with other cultures. You must build trust.

Intercultural handshake (Small)Fons Trompenaars, again him, recommends a method, which he calls “reconciling dilemmas”. If there are two good ways of doing things in two different cultures – and these methods seem mutually exclusive, you need to proceed with a reconciliation process. Things should neither be done neither “my way”, nor “your way” and not by a lukewarm compromise in the middle.

What you need is a dynamic process of inventing a way where both cultures positive capacities are used in innovative ways for finding new solutions.

This goes far away from the digital black or white thinking.

The process – never ending – as such is also of value to the organization, as it in itself becomes a constructive and unifying factor for the cooperation and identity.

About Anders Fogelstrom :