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To Ask is to learn from Cultural Differences

To Ask is to learn from Cultural Differences

  • 26 January 2017
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

What is your biggest challenge with organizational culture? That’s an extra question we ask all free respondents who use the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument. Just because we’re curious - what are you struggling with? What do you need help with? What can I blog about to inspire you?

There’s a long list of interesting topics submitted by over 25,000 people over the last two years.

Multinational Collaboration

One returning topic is multinational or international collaboration. Here are some challenges people submitted:

“We have more than 3000 employees located across 35 countries speaking 12 languages, and we’re in the process of transformation.”

“How can we manage cultural changes in a multinational company and achieve the commitment of all the employees?”

“I work in a multinational company and interact with a lot of different cultures; the challenge is to work as an overall team.”

“Working with different cultures and time zones is a challenge.”

“Managing people from different cultures and different countries, in some cases, the cultural aspect is so sensitive that it affects my job efficiency.”

“Having everyone embrace different cultures without stereotyping or feeling that their culture is being devalued.”

“We work in 12 developing countries where corruption is institutionalized. Most difficult task is defining the culture in a way everyone can understand and influencing a change in staff behavior.”

“Getting along with people with different value and working behaviors.”

“Arab employees. I took the time to learn from them more about their culture by asking questions and using reading material and so I have gained their respect. This has helped me to better communicate not only with their culture but with many cultures.”

This is such a fascinating field! It is one thing to enjoy different cultures when you are passing by, and nothing is at stake. It is another thing when you have to achieve goals together - and you have to make it work whether you like it or not.

The last respondent from the list above - who started to ask questions and read about the Arabic culture holds the key to successful international collaboration. It comes down to Stephen Covey’s adage: Understand first before you can be understood.

Suspend Judgment

The famous “national culture” guru Geert Hofstede calls for Cultural Relativism: please suspend judgment when dealing with different cultures. Understanding that culture helps a great deal to stop judging immediately. It helped me a great deal to let go of my irritation in multinational projects.

I once had a virtual assistant from South-East Asia. Can you do this before Friday? I asked her. She said: Sure. But by Friday nothing was delivered. When I asked why she apologized. She’d do it before Monday. 

I was annoyed. Lazy, unreliable, or deliberately lying - all kinds of judgments came to mind. But my better Self told me to cut her some slack. Maybe she had had a rough week, and it had been simply too much. There could be a thousand reasons why she was late.

On Monday I got a file that didn’t even resemble what we had agreed on. I fumed. Incompetent - I judged. This lying assistant was saying yes to keep me calm and get away with my money.

But looking more closely at her work, I started to suspect that she didn’t know how to do this particular task. So, I asked: Do you have questions left how to do this?

Well, uhh, yes, she said and started asking questions - questions that I’d have asked up front if I were her.

But I wasn’t from her culture. I assumed she understood and knew how - and she implied that she did. In her culture, you’re stupid when you ask questions. In my culture, you seem smart and open when asking questions - which is valued even if your actual questions are a little “stupid” (in the sense that you should have known this).

I’ve learned to suspend judgment and to observe what happens plus my responses. It has enriched my life, smoothed my relationships and made me a kinder person. 

Labeling Others

The same way, different archetypes of organizational culture tend to judge one another. Looking at the basis of the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument - we see Competing Values. 

If you’re an operational manager who values results and getting things done, if you enjoy a little competition - you feel fine in your current Compete Culture (Market Culture). But you might see the people from HR as touchy-feely with their people-oriented Collaborate Culture where they entice employees to participate and engage (Clan Culture). 

The other way around, they regard you as overly harsh when you push for deadlines and targets and when you challenge your teams to deliver more.

This labeling of others is natural and understandable and automatic. But our first response to what is different or foreign shouldn’t dictate how we work together. 

We can overcome this by understanding the others - so that we may be able to help them accomplish our shared goals and tasks. In the process, everyone will learn and get wiser.

Humble Inquiry

Another culture guru, Edgar Schein, said: Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures.

Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. His advice:

  • Don’t assume you know what the other wants or needs, they might not even have asked the right question to you!
  • Clear your mind and maximize your listening.
  • Access your ignorance and ask questions in the least biased and threatening way…

That’s why the Institute for Culture and Adaptive Leadership has developed and accredited professional certificate and a Masters in Science (MSc) degree in Professional Development: Culturally Adaptive Leadership (CAL) that are both offered online. These programs are accredited by Middlesex University, London, UK. This university is ranked among the top according to the IELTS world university rankings.

The CAL programs involve the understanding and application of transcultural competency, organizational culture, adaptive leadership, and lasting culture change in both local and global communities. Professionals completing the program will be prepared to operate in the diverse and complex global world of organizations and communities.

Let’s prepare for transcultural competence and culturally adaptive leadership. What are your tips and advice?

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2017. All rights reserved.

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