The business world is now more connected than ever before. And companies with global operations have executives who are doing business with new emerging markets – different countries with diverse cultural groups of locals and other international executives. While the opportunities for business growth and success are immense, challenges also abound. At a human level, no matter what the culture is and or what advancements have been made technologically, business at its heart is still about people, relationships and connectivity.
If you are doing business with people from a different culture, how do you minimize misunderstanding and faux pas and maximize good will, co-operation and success? How do you not only survive but thrive in a culture vastly different from yours? In such a potentially challenging context, skills involving a keen sense of observation, attunement, genuine interest and emotional intelligence (EQ) become more poignant. Cultural intelligence is just as important as any other technical skills relevant to your job. The good news is that this need not be a minefield of unknowns but a journey of learning, discovery and success.
A few years ago, I worked with senior executives from a company doing business with India (and other Asian countries). Unraveling some of the assumptions, approaches and thinking of our executives frequently led to gales of laughter as differences were uncovered but also some sage learning and humility that often comes from respect and consideration of the other. The executives left the session feeling more resourced, able and willing to take on the challenge.
If you are an executive doing business with countries where people think, act and process things in a way which feel foreign to you, here are seven insights, attributes and mindset to be mindful of.
1) Be mindful of your assumptions – how you have done things back home isn’t necessarily “correct” and or indeed the only way to do things. Different cultures have different approaches to doing business. Get to know and understand what the obvious and not so obvious rules and patterns are.
2) Don’t be judgemental – yes – this is easier said than done. However, even if you find yourself judging and evaluating along the lines of ‘just how wrong things are the way the host culture is approaching certain things’ keep these to yourself! As Daniel Goleman puts it – both cultural and emotional intelligence require, “a propensity to suspend judgement – to think before acting.” Remember your objective – you are there to build bridges and do successful business.
3) Stay flexible – research has shown that executives who remain flexible when living abroad do a whole lot better than those who stay rigid in how they approach things. Be nimble in your thinking as your mental models get stretched and sometimes stressed! If you are living in another country, don’t just mingle with the expats. Get to know the locals too. Cognitive flexibility is a strong suit for any leader.
4) Have an orientation of openness and learning – see this phase of your business and leadership development as one that is going to put you on a path way possibly beyond your wildest vision of yourself. The growth and rich experience including the unexpected learning and humility that executives experience can be like nothing else they may have experienced before.
5) Take responsibility and make an effort – people from the culture that you are doing business with really appreciate it when they see you making an effort. Get to know their cultural etiquette, norms, habits and practices, dress code, communication patterns, business do’s and dont’s and any religious sensitivities. The fact that you make an effort even if you get it wrong a bit still goes a long way in the emotional and business bank account.
6) Go beyond language – just because the people you are doing business with people can speak English, doesn’t mean that you therefore understand their culture. Go beyond the language to really notice, understand and get to know the values, beliefs, the core drivers, stories and cultural practices that really matter to your new business partners. Focus on the non-verbal as much as or more than just words. A lot of what makes up a culture is like the iceberg – massively present but not immediately visible!
7) Manage your frustrations – there will be times when things will not be moving at the speed you wish them to or you experience a mis-match of expectations and even culture shock. This is normal. The point is to accept, embrace and find a way through these feelings rather than fight, get angry or give in to it for long. In the long term, you will come out all the richer for having had the life and business enhancing experiences.
Jasbindar Singh is a business psychologist of Indian descent who loves working with executives to bolster their cross-cultural leadership effectiveness.