Samantha was very excited about Mark, who was about to join her team. Knowing that he had been working with a competitor in Frankfurt for the last five years, Samantha and her team were anxious to get the benefit of his international business experience.
Imagine her disappointment when Mark turned out to be completely different from what she expected. Almost immediately after he joined the team, they realized he wasn’t a “team player,” was reluctant to share information, seemed disapproving of the team’s process, and was overly critical of colleagues.
Desperately, Samantha asked her HR department for help. They assigned a consultant who quickly identified the problem, which boiled down to cultural differences. It was now evident that Mark came from a very different cultural work background than what Samantha and her Anglo-American team were accustomed to. Obviously, her team members needed cultural training if they were going to effectively capitalize on Mark’s expertise.
So, HR quickly arranged for some team building training with an interculturalist. This helped Mark, Samantha, and the team recognize how different cultural styles can impact collaborative behavior and intercultural understanding. Going forward, the entire team was able to develop the intercultural communication skills they needed to work together, despite cultural differences.
In Today’s International Business Environment, Everyone Benefits from Intercultural Training
Global business has long recognized the importance of preparing people who will be embarking on an international assignment. But that only addresses half the equation for successful global endeavors. Anyone who will be working with expatriates—or other people who are new to a culture—also benefit significantly from intercultural training.
And it’s not just teams that can be affected by newcomers, like in Samantha’s case. Individuals interact with newcomers—foreign and otherwise—all the time. Whether you’re a “receiving manager” who is welcoming an expat, a team leader who has a new member, or an individual who is working with a new supplier or client from another country, you might face a similar situation to Samantha’s.
Whatever your role may be in today’s global business environment, intercultural training will help you bridge the gap between cultural differences and help you understand the challenges newcomers face when entering a new environment. In turn, this understanding can prevent time-wasting conflicts and unnecessary misunderstandings.
The Many Layers of Cultural Differences
When developing the cross-cultural skills needed to work with newcomers, it’s important to understand that culture has many layers. Of course, there are the obvious areas of potential cultural confusion, such as formality and timeliness. But cultural challenges can go far beyond worrying about how to dress or wondering if it’s okay to be a few minutes late to a meeting. Some more subtle cultural differences include:
- Simple, everyday conversations—what’s appropriate and what’s not?
- Socializing with colleagues—both in and out of the workplace
- Sharing personal and family information—is it to be expected?
And, as evidenced by the differences between Samantha and Mark’s work styles, cultural differences include even more complex subtleties, such as:
- How to express agreement and disagreement
- How to manage being interrupted
- How to contribute to conversations that expect—but don’t invite—participation
- How to help colleagues who don’t ask for help
- How to offer help without implying incompetence
To effectively work with newcomers and make the most out of cultural differences, here are three steps that everyone should take:
- Learn about the culture of new people joining your team. For example, does the new colleague come from a formal or informal environment? Are they “direct” or “indirect” in their communication style?
- Take time to get to know the new person and learn about their specific background, without being intrusive. Since everyone is unique, learning about their general cultural background isn’t enough—not all Americans are direct communicators, for instance.
- Make sure the newcomer knows the written—and unwritten—rules and expectations. It would be a mistake to assume that all rules and expectations are obvious. For example, the expected time it takes to respond to an email isn’t obvious, nor is the etiquette for interrupting people.
It’s obvious that someone embarking on an international assignment would need to prepare for the cultural differences they’re about to experience in a new environment. But as evidenced by Samantha’s experience with Mark, both sides must undergo intercultural training in order to take full advantage of the benefits of an international business environment. Next time you’re working with a newcomer, think about what you can do to understand their perspective.