Cultural Awareness

expatriate flight risk, international HR consulting, global employment company, expatriate management

Judging by the number of articles currently circulating in social media the topic de jour appears to be cultural awareness. Mostly written to sell plug-and-play training, they document the social faux pas of witless expatriates.

Having been fortunate to have lived and worked in many cultures my practical experience suggests that one-size-fits-all could not be further removed from how companies should be preparing their people for international exposure.

At the heart of the conversation about cultural awareness is how important is it going to be in advancing the business process or transaction and who should have it.

Should we do as the Romans do was one headline that caught my attention? Well yes, duh? Unless your objective which on occasion may be desirable, is to stand out and be different. To know a little of the culture and some of the language will go a long way whether planning to live or visit a different country. Common politeness works in most places and behaving as you would if you were a guest invited into someone’s home, is the general rule.

Despite global product consumer marketing some of the things that we are used to at home are just not going to be available locally for reasons of preference or practicality. The Australians don’t care much for Starbucks nor the Europeans for extra starch in their laundry. There are good reasons for this and being ready to accommodate (the local equivalent) rather than resist, will make the journey far more enjoyable. Take the time to do a little research – when invited for a home-cooked meal with a colleague – is usual practice to take flowers, wine, or chocolate?

In a business context deciding whether to blend in, appear different, or simply understand and interpret will be key? Any of these could be an objective, and here are some scenarios to contemplate:

1.     The Family – an office in another country is still an office, particularly if you have visited it before. Not so for family members who will have to navigate new schools, shopping experiences and temporary accommodation. Most companies don’t think about investing in family awareness until a candidate has been selected. The presumption is that the process is “preparation” rather than a means of assisting “selection”. Most assignments go wrong because families fail to adapt. We can all spot when that happens. What we are not so good at is identifying when an assignment is about to go wrong. New generations have many different expectations and are going to be harder to please. Using awareness training to mitigate the risk of failure or underperformance is preferable to exposing only supposedly committed candidates.

We resist involvement in employee’s private lives at home but while on assignment we cannot help becoming involved. Ensure that the company is doing all it discreetly can to support the family will secure better results in the long term.

2.     The Mid-level expatriate –There’s likely not going to be much business fallout from a cultural misstep by an employee transferred to gain experience or transfer a skill to a local colleague. In the local office of a global company, they are unlikely to be pioneers, and the folks that work there do so because they like the multicultural environment. However, adopting the mindset of a guest and a willingness to learn will ensure that it won’t be too long before colleagues are sharing tips on getting by. That will be a richer experience than any canned training module.

Language is the key. I worked in an office with nine different first languages and English in several cases, was third. We recognized this and discussed and developed a technique for meetings, to ensure that everyone understood what had been agreed upon. They took longer and literal translations often caused the difficulties (ask for translations of “vision” in a group of non-English speakers). We then segued this into sharing cultural norms and had some fun sharing the difficulties we all experienced during relocation. Everyone it turns out had their challenges despite the world being a smaller place. In international companies particularly there is awareness about diversity and it is generally accepted and even celebrated. Expatriates are recognized as a little different but with the right attitude whether to shake hands or cheek kiss will not be a challenge.

3.     The Sales Executive or Business Leader – Executives needing to complete a project or negotiate a transaction in a predominantly local environment need to be much more deeply aware of the cultural setting that they are entering. Firstly, to avoid causing inadvertent offense but secondly to be able to prepare for and interpret reactions, body language, and other signals from counterparts. The deeper the ethnicity in the group being faced the more important the preparation. You may think that because the world is a smaller place that differences are fewer in the business context. This is true but by the same token, there is a greater expectation that you will honor and respect them when your job is to impress.

Take nothing for granted. We sold successfully an international business to a Japanese company staffed by essentially former Japanese civil servants with little experience outside of Japan. A great deal of time was spent preparing for discussions and negotiations. A different transaction involved a Quebec based company attempting to buy a company in France. There was felt to be an enormous cultural affinity by the Quebecois management whereas the target regarded the acquirers as North Americans who happened to speak French. While the language might be the same, there may be a wide gap in cultural norms and expectations. Americans selling into Canada need to be aware of how they are likely to be received and should not assume that this will be the same as when received by say, Europeans.

4.     The CEO or Regional Manager – Whether living locally or are managing from another jurisdiction there is the significant value at stake and the CEO needs to understand what to expect from the local executive team and workforce. We have stereotypical impressions of the fundamental differences between North Americans and Europeans but can Canadians register behavioral differences between Spaniards and Greeks or Czechs and Hungarians enough to manage a business? These could be critical in terms of anticipating and managing local behavior and in decisions related to the selection of suppliers, international partners, and the sourcing of expatriates. More than just awareness may be needed and a permanent coach may be preferable according to the value at risk.

I worked with a CEO who succeeded in negotiating a mega infrastructure project in a Middle Eastern country that completely credited the success to time invested in family occasions with her opposite numbers. The advice had been that social interaction especially at the highest levels, was going to be the key to a successful business partnership.

If you would like to know more about the behavioral science behind cultural awareness contact our partner Natalie Richter. If you would like to understand how to assess and mitigate the risks of international failure call us at 905 842 7916 or reach out by email.

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