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How Do We Navigate Across Cultures?

All of my experience in different parts of the world have given me a better understanding of different national cultural groups – what their preferences are; how their society is expected to function; what values and style and relationships exist and why.

We really do live in a rich tapestry where culture – the community you grew up in – plays a huge part in determining your behaviour. It is in national culture that we tend to feel so much pride, comfort, and safety in those practices and traditions we know, and with whom we share the same language and expressions. It is here too between cultures and groups where I see a myriad of exclusion and conflict. Bias favours those that are part of one’s in-group and expects some level of distrust from out-groups.

Operating internationally in large organisations or international major projects however requires us to bridge the gap between differences. This is not easy. Many of our own behaviours are so normalised and internalised we assume it is not necessary to explain them, but they are different. This includes what we say, how we dress, our way of working, how we behave in meetings, how we structure work, when and where we like to eat, and so on.

I was born in South Africa of Zimbabwean parents. Certainly, the legacy of apartheid, the warring communities of people, the poverty and crime have evidenced communities functioning from a place of scarcity – an understanding of me versus you, and those that have versus those that don’t. These are subcultures fighting for their own needs and desires. The reasons for these wars have been understood by some as racism, however as there are so many different groups (SA has 11 official languages that embody the major cultural groups) it is very complex, and evidences warring on subcultural lines. 

Working overseas in large organisations has allowed me to witness temporary organisations made up of different national cultural groups from India, the Middle East, UK, USA, France, and Turkey. What has been interesting is that some of these cultures have similar preferences in their behaviour, like a preference for hierarchy, centralised power structures and large power distance (see Hofstede’s work) in which the CEO makes all the decisions for the group and his power is largely unquestioned. This is evident in nearly all of those cultures I mentioned previously. One might assume that employees working in an organisation with the SAME preferences might perform more efficiently, and to some extent this is true; however there are still hidden intention and distrust between shareholder groups, or different ranks of staff.

In these examples, it is the difference in behaviour that can be misunderstood. This is to a large extent all of the non-verbal behaviours and cues that remain unspoken, and look different. I recall behaviours I’ve seen that look to me like a lack of direction, or time-wasting but are in fact coming from a place of protection, safety, and building relationships. It is important to know that differences can be leveraged. It is thought that diversity and creativity drive motivation, productivity, and innovation; and this may take some time to get right, but when we do allows for far stronger organisations to emerge.

Communication is critical in this sense. Communication about culture, about ways of working, about responsibilities, decision making, and feedback are extremely important before the work even starts. These conversations are often avoided because the priority is given to efficiency, or to avoid making assumptions or a mistake, or being politically incorrect. However, this is all natural and a part of any learning journey.

Cultural fluency (see Jane Hyun) is about understanding our competence level and finding a way of upskilling our cultural competencies. Cultural fluency is about staying curious and open to new ways of working, and remaining non-judgemental when conflict arises. 

Cultural competence comprises:

  • awareness of our cultural mind-set, 
  • our attitudes towards difference, 
  • knowledge of others, and 
  • Cross-cultural skills such as communication. 

This competence, like any other, requires experience in different situations and development over a period of time. The more we can lean into discussing differences the more we can understand, and the more space is created for people to show up more fully.

 This is why cultural competencies may need a larger space in any development program, competency set, or leadership development. Unconscious bias and cultural awareness training is great as a first step, and should be supplemented by more opportunities to develop these skills.

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