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Article:  Feeling The Pain

A cultural divide runs right through the middle of many American companies.  It is the gap between those who know how to work effectively with people from other countries, and those who don’t.

You will not learn this from a book.  Imagination alone is not enough to prepare for the challenges and frustrations of working across cultures.  You’ll need first-hand experience, feeling the pain yourself and learning the hard way what you will critically need to know.  Whether as a leader or individual contributor, success in international business requires opening yourself up as a person and learning to deal with aspects and situations that can be thoroughly discomforting.

I’m not talking about eating grilled snakes in Taiwan, singing along unfamiliar Karaoke tunes in Portugal, or drinking bitter-tasting tea while seated cross-legged on the floor of a Bedouin tent in Yemen.  What this is about is discovering that Arabs may request ten times the true value of an item you want to buy from them, that a Chinese counterpart may inquire why you don’t have kids, that a group of Finns you’re spending the evening with may not be speaking a single word in several minutes, or that a Costa Rican working for you may expect you to hire his brother-in-law because “he’s such a great guy”.  None of these situations presents any dangers, but all of them are likely to be deeply uncomfortable for many Americans (and others).  They raise questions about ethics, respect, trust, and more.  Reacting the wrong way can kill opportunities and destroy relationships.

The pressure gets worse if big things are at stake.  How do you convince that colleague of yours, who recently moved over from France, that your ideas about a project your boss expects both of you to complete are promising?  How do you resolve tensions between the American and the Indian parts of that international team you depend on to make a project successful?  How do you convince that seemingly interested, but still noncommittal, Korean company to sign that contract you’ve been pursuing for months?  How do you gain access to that Argentinean executive who appears unwilling to meet with you, although what you are offering should be of great interest?  These challenges can be vexing, because our success lessons, the recipes for effective problem solving we discovered in past (domestic) situations, may no longer work.  Once you reach that point of “feeling the pain”, you will be ready to start learning.

Mastering such challenges takes a distinctive set of skills:

  1.  The ability to recognize cross-cultural issues as such.

  2.  The sensitivity to identify the underlying causes.

  3.  The knowledge to find practical solutions.

  4.  The experience to implement them smoothly and move on.

The first skill requires awareness and experience, the second a sensitivity that some people have naturally, while others need to learn it.  The third one can be acquired from books or through training.  The last skill is again based on practical experience.  People who master all four will thrive in the global economy.  The others may be very competent in their area of specialization.  However, when facing cross-cultural challenges, they could go from highly effective to highly ineffective in the blink of an eye.

Some people won’t even make the first step.  They may not see an issue because they “deal with foreigners all the time”.  Upon closer inspection, however, those “foreigners” often turn out to be people who came from abroad to become Americans - a mother-in-law who lived in Greece as a kid, Asian co-workers who lived in the States since college, or a Mexican housekeeper who grew up in West Texas.  Sorry, those kinds of experiences won’t help much.

The brutal truth is that in today’s economy, there is no such thing as a domestic job.  Global trade and travel, in- and outsourcing, virtual collaboration, and the internet have made international contacts a part of everyone’s life, no matter what it is they do.  Consequently, if you never tackled tough cross-cultural challenges, if you didn’t learn how to overcome your cultural biases and work with the “other side”, then you simply aren’t ready for the job market of the 21st century.

Are you feeling the pain yet?

Printable PDF version written by  Lothar Katz

( Copyright 2005, Leadership CrossroadsTM )

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