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Intercultural Communication
:: October 5, 2010

Intercultural Communication at Work

William D. Stinnett, Ph.D.

October 5, 2010

A dilemma in any work that includes an intercultural component is the tension between finding common ground and appreciating differences. I once heard a respected colleague say, “The seminar was great. The facilitator got us focused completely on how people are alike rather than lingering on our differences.” I remember thinking, “That would be good only if you believe that anything different is bad.” Why bother traveling to another country or trying to create a more diverse workplace if differences are bad? It seems to me that the appeal of traveling to another culture is to learn something new; to experience something different. It is the same with teams. The power of diversity is that the team becomes stronger because people bring different ideas, strengths, points of view, values, and so on.

The major challenge in dealing with other cultures is summed up in the word, ethnocentrism. We have a tendency to evaluate others through the lens of our own culture, our own experience. It is natural, of course, to compare new experiences with our own history. The tricky part is to learn to do so without making moral judgments about the new experiences. That is, seeing something new or different and concluding that it is bad because it is not the same as my past experience. Taken to its extreme, that would lead to a completely closed system. That is the root of highly dogmatic, closed-minded, even bigoted thinking. I am not suggesting that we should be valueless or judgment-free. But we should examine how we go about judging other people and experiences. It should not be automatic. In general, I believe that we are happier, healthier people if we judge each person and each experience on its own merit, not merely whether it conforms to those things I have already experienced. Being clear about this idea is important in any workshop that deals with communication skills.

Ethnocentrism is, in some ways, automatic. That is, it happens without thinking. So, bringing it to one’s attention can cause that person to reevaluate their thinking and possibly make an effort to avoid it or, at least, to mitigate the effects of it. On a visit to Seoul, I was reluctant to eat kimchi (A Korean dish made of fermented vegetables – usually cabbage) that is served with almost every Korean meal. My host encouraged me to try it by saying, “Americans have nothing like it. So, how could you not like it without ever really trying it?” He had a good point. I had tasted some but could not honestly say that I had really tried kimchi as a meal or as a side dish. He then educated me about its history and the many varieties (There are hundreds of kinds). As is often the case, I discovered that I truly liked some varieties but not others. I decided to say to myself, “How can I make a decision to like or dislike something I know nothing about? Am I just avoiding it because I have nothing in my own diet to compare it with?” Had my host not encouraged the exploration and had I not made a conscious decision to try something new, I would have missed out on a worthwhile experience. And, it could have led to difficulties in my relationship with an important client.

So, trying a new food is a relatively benign experiment. I had little to lose. But, a more subtle and perhaps more dangerous effect of ethnocentrism is stereotyping, especially stereotyping of people. Such ideas as, “All Chinese are good at math, know martial arts, are mysterious or inscrutable” stem from superficial media exposure and, of course, bear little resemblance to reality. But such ideas can be sticky and can influence choices we make about how to interact with our Asian colleagues. On my first visit to South Korea, I was trying to be very polite. My translator finally became impatient with me and said, “You are trying too hard not to offend. We are not so sensitive. It is insulting to treat us so.” Well, lesson learned! It gave me a chance to loosen up and really get to know some of the participants in my workshops a little better. I also began to learn that Asian cultures are at least as different from one another as Western cultures. South Korean culture is very different from Malaysian culture or Japanese culture, etc. And, just as in the U.S., there are significant cultural differences within the countries (i.e. Dallas vs. Boston). The culture of Seoul is very different from the more rural parts of South Korea. Tokyo is not the same as Tsu, and so on.

There are, of course, the challenges of different languages. Upon arrival in China for an assignment in Shanghai, I was worried when my host met me and was speaking what I presumed to be Mandarin Chinese. I had anticipated conducting my workshops in English. Much to my surprise and embarrassment, I eventually realized that she was indeed speaking English. I had simply not “tuned” my ear well enough to understand what she was saying. It took a day or so for me to become a “fluent listener” of my clients’ English. Sometimes certain words do not translate well. During one  seminar, we had trouble with the word “synergistic.” There just was no acceptable Korean word for it. I also learned that Chinese symbols are not universal. Different regions and countries may use the same symbols but in different ways. During a workshop in Singapore, there were participants from many countries: China, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, as well as Singapore. I was conducting the class in English and all of the participants were able to understand most of what I was saying. All were bilingual, and many spoke multiple languages. But English was not their mother tongue. Occasionally, I would say something that did not communicate well. When participants started to whisper to one another, I would often stop and let them talk. Often, one of the participants would come to the flip chart and draw a Chinese symbol on the paper. Then, they would discuss its meaning. After a while, they would reconvene and we could proceed, confident that all satisfactorily understood the concept concerned.

Our nonverbal behaviors can often be misunderstood. I once showed up to teach a seminar in South Korea in a red shirt. My guide quickly informed me that “red” carried some ominous implications in a country where a war had been fought with the “Reds,” in North Korea. In Saudi Arabia, the men would almost always show up in their traditional dress (thobe – long white robe, and gutra – checked cloth worn as a headdress with an igal) on the first day. After that, most wore conservative Western clothing. My host told me that they did that to proclaim, “This is my country. I am Saudi. I am your host.”

There are also very different, communication styles. One concept that is especially important in many classes, including a workshop that I was teaching in Hong Kong, is non-blameful confrontation. I teach a very direct, non-combative way of confronting unacceptable behavior. The participants in my class showed considerable reluctance toward using what they viewed as a very “abrupt” way of confronting poor performance. Their assessment was that the skill was a very American way of communicating. “You Americans are so much more direct than we Asians.” While I was (and am) not totally convinced that Americans are direct (I think we often use humor to avoid direct communication about uncomfortable topics), I was certainly open to hear different approaches to talking clearly about behaviors and actions that interfere with team objectives. After some discussion with my colleagues, we came to an agreement. The technique is good because it is clear, but not appropriate in every situation. They concluded, “We can use this very effectively with our organizational peers, especially those in the U.S., but to use them with our team members, we need to ‘soften’ the initial phrases.” Phrases like, “May I speak with you about a problem that I have? Perhaps, you can help me understand. I would like to reach an agreement,” help set the proper tone for such an important conversation and allows the other person to be prepared and avoid embarrassment.

It is also important to remember that there are truly fundamental values differences in many cultures. Some of those differences are very deep. A different value carries a lot more weight than a different kind of food or clothing, or even one’s communication style. There were no women in any of the workshops I conducted in Saudi Arabia. While my host company was very progressive compared to most Saudi companies, they still had no women employees. Some Saudi men had multiple wives. A man could be arrested for photographing a woman. Saudi women are required to wear an abayah (black garment that covers the entire body from shoulders to feet) and headscarf in public. These practices are hard for most Westerners to accept. Yet, there was little point in making judgmental statements about these behaviors. These are areas in which it is better to accommodate and remain silent, especially when you are the guest in their country. It is in the area of values where the best option is, indeed, to seek commonalities and not focus on the differences.

When working in other cultures, there are several guidelines that have served me well:

  • Have a guide. Make sure that you have a colleague in that country that knows the culture and is willing to give you feedback about what you do right and where you need to make changes.
  • Do your homework. Learn as much about the culture as you can before you visit. Do not, however, overestimate how much you know just because you looked up some information on the Internet or took a class. If possible, learn the language if you are going to be in the other country for an extended period of time. Even for short trips, learning a few phrases is a good idea.
  • Listen. I have never gotten into trouble by listening. The better job I do of listening, the fewer problems I encounter.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Try not to keep making the same mistake over and over. Most of my colleagues are quite tolerant of the “American” and his funny ideas. And as long as it is apparent that I am trying to be respectful of their culture and making an effort to modify my behaviors, they remain patient.
  • Be flexible. Be willing to change. Try new things. Let your host suggest new experiences. Modify your agenda (i.e. In predominately Muslim countries, it is necessary to include time for prayers in your work schedule).

While it is more complex than I have made it seem in some ways, it is at a very basic level that this kind of learning occurs. There is no need to overcomplicate the process. Such opportunities are rich with possibility if you are willing to work at it and accept that you are going to make some mistakes. The chance to learn about a different culture and to be an ambassador for your own culture is a gift not to be taken lightly. 

Five Things Every Leader Must Do
:: September 29, 2010

Five Things Every Leader Must Do

William D. Stinnett, Ph.D.

Every business is unique. Every leader is different. Every organizational culture is the only one of its kind. All true. But there are also some universals:

  • Organizations are systems of relationships. They work or don’t work to the degree that the relationships work (or don’t work). This doesn’t mean that everyone has to like everyone else. That is not an achievable goal. It does mean that the leader must be committed to developing adult working relationships among all employees.
  • You are a leader only if someone follows you. You can’t “appoint” someone to be a “leader.” There are many long lists of what makes a good leader. But you lead only when another person makes a choice to follow you. Their perception of you is very important whether that should be the case or not. It is.
  • Organizations where people collaborate are more productive than those who don’t. More work gets done when people work together. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, teamwork is essential.
  • People have an enormous capacity to resist change when they feel threatened. When people feel the balance of power is tipped too far against them, they fight back by withholding information, using their discretionary effort to undermine their boss, subtly sabotage the organization’s goals, etc.

Despite the mythology that, “People are just that way,” or “People never change,” there are several actions that leaders must take to make their organization effective. Often, people behave in ways that are highly predictable given the circumstances in which they are working. Leaders can change the circumstances and often greatly change the behaviors of team members. To do that, the leader must learn these skills.

  • Tell the truth. Good news or bad news. Just say it. Most team members are adults and appreciate knowing where they stand. Nothing promotes fear and anxiety more than uncertainty. Don’t be stingy with information.
  • Listen. Hear people out. Show them that you understand their point of view. Don’t second-guess, interrogate, jump to conclusions, etc. You don’t have to agree with everything that they say but it is important to understand. Listening is not something you are born with. It is a skill that must be learned and most leaders are not very good at it.
  • Hold people accountable. When a team member’s performance is good, say so. When there is a problem, tell them. Avoid assigning blame, name-calling, judgments and the like but be straight with people about how their behavior impacts the objectives of the team. Even if it is initially uncomfortable, people appreciate knowing where they stand and having an opportunity to correct errors or improve their performance.
  • Resolve conflicts. Don’t let disputes linger. Ineffective leaders avoid difficult problems and conflicts. Commit to an environment in which conflict is seen as normal and resolvable. Most conflicts can be resolved in a win/win if the leader knows how and addresses it soon enough.
  • Build teams. You’ve heard it before! Organizations are more effective when people work together than when everyone is out for him/herself. Yet some managers persist in setting people against one another with the misguided idea that they will be more creative or motivated if they are competing with one another. There is little mystery to team building. There is a set of steps that any leader can take that will lead to effective employee teams who are committed to helping the organization meet its goals.

Every organization has its unique requirements: mastery of the technology, proper marketing of the product, competent financial stewardship, and so forth. But, none of those things alone will assure the organization’s success. Every leader has the responsibility to build an organizational culture that will sustain it through good and bad times. He or she must learn and practice the five essential skills.