Leadership and Cross Cultural Communications

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Leaders as Cross Cultural Change Managers

A leader who is culturally myopic and lacks the competency to recognize the reality of the fast changing marketplace is doomed to failure. To survive in the global market, leaders today need not only possess the knowledge and skills but have thorough understanding and managing of cultural diversity and myriad management styles. Cross cultural communication awareness and sensitivity calls for becoming culturally fluent in other cultures while understanding one’s own culture. In essence Cross Cultural Managers  (CCMs) are the “first ambassadors” because they carry the flag of their country and their company abroad.

Perception is reality we often hear, but no matter how perceptive one is, if the leader cannot speak or reasonably understand the host country’s language, traditions, customs and culture, the conflict within translates to conflict outside. Here in lies the root of communicative incompetence because an uneasy mind leads to unreasonable demands on others and thus sets a negative chain reaction which  instead of leveraging business relationships for profit and enhanced productivity, results in delays, miscommunications, frustrated employees and loss of business.

Cross cultural training programs at the least should include a brief discussion of the history, the values, the customs and the work ethics and management style of a foreign country.

Cross Cultural Communication can be challenging yet highly rewarding if one comprehends and respects the differences that exist among people of diverse culture, and can go beyond the superficial without any preconceived judgment.  During my tenure in the bank which operated in 78 countries with over 500 offices worldwide, it was a mandatory to return all International Executives at the end of their tenure to the Bank’s International Management Development Center in London for de-briefing and to share their overseas work and living experiences with others with a view to observe and make appropriate behavioral adjustments in relations to any cross cultural issues that would be important to enhance productivity and help maintain a competitive global advantage.

The challenges of doing business in the global economy are enormous along with the opportunities; understanding how to do business effectively is extremely essential in the competitive market place. One of the key challenges facing any company wishing to do business within their own borders or across the seas is to understand and effectively manage cultural differences to leverage good business relationships.

Along with the continuing interest and increase in globalization and the diversity in the workplace, cross cultural management has today become an important element of organization life and therefore assumes great relevance. Today, more than ever, to build successful teams and collaborate across cultures, leaders must build core competency in relationship management, be well-versed in cultural sensitivity and possess the ability to question their own assumptions.

A key to cross cultural change management is to realize that what was acceptable in the past is not necessarily relevant today; the world is constantly converging on some issues and continues to be divergent on many others. Any time a person from one cultural background meets and interacts with another person from a different culture, the magic of cross cultural communication occurs. Cross cultural communication therefore can be defined as an art of managing the convergences and divergences that exist in the social, business and cultural fabric of society.

Canada is a fascinating mix of many different sub-cultures and ethnic groups blending at a rapid pace with the main stream culture. Each group and sub-group has its own characteristic style of nonverbal and verbal communication styles offering in its wake both opportunities for personal and corporate growth and presents challenges relating to communication. However, it would be politically incorrect to label European or Asian cultures as being singular, because the reality is that in each of them there is a fusion of many different nationalities each with their own traditions, social customs, business practices and languages. Generalization can therefore be fraught with social, economic & business risks given that even within a culture, there are myriad of mini-operating cultures such as national cultures, subcultures (based on regions, tribes and so on), organizational or corporate cultures, industry cultures, professional or functional cultures to which each individual either belongs to or is connected in some way or another. For those reasons culture can be defined as a shared system of values, beliefs, attitudes; and because people are most important in the process they will have different sense of time, space, humor, negotiation, and perceptions with different expectations. The word “culture” springs from Latin to mean “building”, “cultivating” or “fostering”. It is a set of accepted behavior patterns; certain accepted values, possibly assumptions and shared common experiences. Culture defines decision-making process and intercommunication style, and talks about etiquette and protocol. Culture influences and impacts everyone and at each level of decision process. Communication in clear and precise tone is vital. However, a word of caution – the way of communicating will not be the same from one country to another country and it is important to know some values of other cultures to avoid misunderstandings. Cross Cultural Communication is interactive and calls for reflective listening. Miscommunication will occur even with all the goodwill if there are significant cultural differences and lack of knowledge.

Equally important is to recognize and accept the logic of time and space where time is seen from different angles by different people. Time in the West is seen as being quantitative and measurable while in the East it is taken to be an unlimited continuity always unraveling itself. There appears to be no urgency for rushing things through in the East. This difference in time concept can have its effect on negotiations or conflict resolution process. Cultural approach to time and communication should always be considered in good faith.

Successful cross cultural communicators need to educate their clients on how to show respect for point of views of others, withhold judgment, tolerate ambiguity, recognize one’s own cultural biases and differences, learn to be flexible and discover points of references or common grounds from which to build and nurture relationships. Successful cross cultural communicators must also teach their clients to recognize that there will always be variations within groups as there will be between them. Knowledge and information therefore are two vital keys to understanding cross cultural communication.  Clients may also be advised to learn essential vocabulary of foreign languages, to understand and appreciate differences in people, avoid stereotyping people, and essentially look for similarities. Nonverbal language is very important in face-to-face communications because it conveys feelings, intentions, and reactions.  This is precisely why I believe that non-verbal communications should never be underestimated because not only are they equally important as verbal communication but they are the only constant factor across different cultures, in as much as the feelings of anger, joy, sadness, love, pain, rejection, success or failure felt by an individual at home or abroad are all alike in every culture. The difference however, lies in how these feelings should be exhibited in public and which ones are considered appropriate or inappropriate. There is a thin line between what is considered appropriate or inappropriate in each culture.

A French business executive once told me years ago that what bothered him most with the American and Canadian executives was holding business meeting over an early morning breakfast.  In the corporate environment in Canada and in USA, firm handshakes, strong eye contact, and smiles are encouraged.  Business associates who are conversing face-to-face typically stand about a meter apart. In France they like to eat their breakfast in peace and browse through the newspaper, now tablet. The last thing they want to do is talk business at breakfast. In the same vein, the Italian businessmen do not appreciate the length of the cocktail hour before dinner. For most one drink before meal makes sense; the operative word is moderation. Likewise, if a business executive from a Benelux Country (Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg), offers you drink at any time of the day during a business discussion, refusing it is not looked upon favorably.

The people from the Middle East and South America  often tend to touch people whom they like, sometimes kissing them, or embracing them or taking them by the arm or patting them on the back. This often innocent gesture is a social taboo and an unacceptable practice in many other Western countries.  Further in the Middle East it is customary for men to greet each other by a “small peck” on the cheek three times. This shows that one does not harbor any “ill-will” to the other.  The Arabs are very generous and hospitable hosts and feel insulted if one refuses their offer of hospitality. It is essential to do everything with one’s right hand, and never expose the soles of your feet when sitting, and never point a finger or beckon an Arab with a finger. These are considered to be offensive. Moreover it is customary for an Arab business executive to stand very close to their guest in a conversation.  The Arabs generally want to know the people first hand before they consider doing business with them. It is prudent not to expect quick response. Patience is an absolute necessity in the Middle East. It is customary to accept cups of mint tea or coffee and engage in small talk before getting down to business. Similarly in Latin America there is more emphasis on relationship building, timing and social appropriateness without rushing to business. Further in Latin America, there is less physical distance between people, softer handshakes, more touching and abrazos, and greater use of hand and arm gestures.

China and Japan are two countries with highly intricate and structured rituals that have evolved over many centuries. In China any sort of noisy or boisterous behavior or an embrace, hug, kiss or pat on shoulder is disliked. It is necessary to conduct oneself with a bit of restraint when in China. However, it is customary to exchange one’s business cards early in the meeting with the Chinese. One must also expect to drink lots of tea in a meeting with the Chinese. It is a part of the Chinese ritual and one must learn to accept it, even enjoy it. Like the Chinese the Japanese shun noisy people or who try to be overly friendly. Giving of money as a tip to “someone who has served you well” must be done in a discreet manner by wrapping the yen in paper or in an envelope, never directly.  Japanese executives have an inbuilt custom of always thanking the host for almost every good gesture. In Japan it is a common courtesy to “bow”, but the bowing is different for different people: a lower bow for more important person, and a less lower bow for one’s peer or a person of less importance. Japanese for instance will often pause during conversation to think before responding and that does not mean being rude or distant. Likewise humor is not always appreciated in a Japanese business conversation.

In Latin American countries, “no” is never final. Business people will often say “no” when they really mean “perhaps” or “we will talk about it at later time”. Spanish executives are quite casual about the timing of their appointments but in Japan they are very punctual, often arriving slightly ahead of the appointment. Many Arab and Mexican executives take a short afternoon nap or “siesta” and will not be available for business. The Indian business executives are shrewd and study the foreigner well before doing business with them regardless of that person’s reputation. In Australia managers treat their workers as equal to “appear more democratic”. It is the reverse in Spain. In Germany it is common to pump when shaking hands, or perform an up-and-down handshake. In India it “palms together” vertical greeting with a small and short bow.

It is imperative to understand traditions, understand the hierarchy systems and the decision-making processes in each culture. Understanding the basic facts of culture also requires understanding its socio-economic business rules because people in foreign lands conduct their businesses in the manner they think is appropriate. It is also absolutely necessary to understand how one is being perceived by counterparts from other cultures; this is a challenge of self-awareness.  The other factors that need to be understood are the role between task versus relationship in different cultures, the interplay of time and space in different cultures, and learning to overcome the differences.

As technology, time and travel bring the world markets close to us, we are realizing that while we may be different people we nevertheless share a common humanity and a common will to succeed. Knowledge and information, trust and patience go a long way in bridging the cultural divide; and at the forefront of it all are the hosts of trained professional business coaches well versed in the art of negotiation, cultural and diversity management, and the image consultants.


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About Syed Hussain

Syed Hussain, Ph.D: Banker, Bankruptcy Analyst, Forensic Accounting & Fraud Examiner, Cyber-Crime & Anti-Money Laundering Advisor, Internal Auditor & Counterterrorism Strategist . As an avid reader and traveler, the former air force pilot, likes to connect with like minded people and engage in intelligent conversations. He enjoys music, film and politics, as well as visiting museums, art galleries and air shows. Syed enjoys horse back riding and swimming. Besides English, he speaks other languages. At the end of the day, he can be found relaxing with a good beer and a fine meal.

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