Intercultural Readiness
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Intercultural Readiness

Four Competences for Working Across Cultures

U. Brinkmann, O. van Weerdenburg

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eBook - ePub

Intercultural Readiness

Four Competences for Working Across Cultures

U. Brinkmann, O. van Weerdenburg

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About This Book

Drawing on research from 30, 000 individuals and their practical experience as intercultural management consultants, the authors provide insights into the broader landscape of intercultural management through their exploration of 4 competencies: Intercultural Sensitivity, Intercultural Communication, Building Commitment and Managing Uncertainty.

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chapter 1

Intercultural Readiness: Translating Talent into Competence

We are all foreigners now. Working life entails some degree of intercultural interaction for most people today: a French investment manager from a development bank visiting start-ups in Africa; an American kindergarten teacher educating children whose parents have brought them from Pakistan; a Brazilian leading tax partner rapidly putting together an international team for a global audit.
And thousands of organizations operate across national borders. In 2011, more than 300,000 US companies engaged in international trade; two years earlier than that, Germany had close to 110,000 exporters and importers. There are a stunning 56,834 international NGOs operating in 300 countries and territories.1
World universities offer study-abroad programmes to 2.8 million students; the National University of Singapore alone lists 180 partner universities in 33 countries. The United States hosts close to 40 million immigrants, while the United Kingdom has sent out three million expatriates. Foreign workers account for almost 90 per cent of the population in the United Arab Emirates, and close to 70 per cent in Kuwait.2
Even in the tiniest place, internationalization is apparent; the authors of this book recently overheard locals outside a bar in a German village, exchanging tips on dealing differently with Dutch, Polish and Estonian truck drivers.

The Need for Intercultural Readiness

Many industries and companies now see substantial economic growth only outside their traditional home base. Doing business across borders is no longer an additional option – it is the only way to create a sustainable future.
Organizations operating globally are now very aware that culture matters. They know that their customers, staff, suppliers and other stakeholders may have widely varying expectations, needs and preferences because of their different cultural backgrounds. And they have learned that cultural differences can be like a tripwire, waiting to catch them at a vulnerable moment and wreck their chances. These organizations know that they need to understand cultural differences and take them into account in their business dealings.
But it is one thing to know that cultures differ, and another thing altogether to decide what to do differently because of it. Take the case of two bankers who were sent from the United States to Asia to lend money. This was a very important deal: if things went right, this loan would fund a private company that was committed to creating sustainable growth in its country and enhancing the living conditions of its workers.
The two bankers were expecting to meet one, or perhaps two, senior people who would have the ultimate say in negotiating the loan and its terms. But when they arrived at their destination expecting to be shown into a quiet office, to their shock they instead found themselves facing 27 people around a boardroom table.
How were they to deal with this, they wondered; should they shake hands with all 27, then find out who were the two money men they should be talking to and somehow dismiss the other 25? After all, they were here to talk to the people who knew the details of contracts, and who had responsibility for borrowing and paying back.
This is where intercultural readiness comes in; that readiness to respond openly and constructively to an intercultural challenge. Intercultural readiness is not about playing games, to cunningly mirror others’ body language and speech so as to trick them into trust; it’s not learning how to game the system. It is about understanding, communicating and cooperating with people from other cultures just as effectively and honestly as one does with people from one’s own culture. And it always involves learning about ourselves.
One of the key aspects of intercultural readiness is the ability to stay flexible and alert in dealing with other cultures – and to have faith that people with different ways know what they’re doing. This is what the two bankers did. They sat and talked, and listened. And gradually it became apparent that all 27 of the people facing them would be affected by the proposed borrowings, all needed to know that they were dealing with trustworthy people, and to see what deal was on the table. The two young bankers were flexible and open; they behaved impeccably towards the 27 new customers and, after a while, most of the 27 gradually excused themselves with thanks and drifted away, leaving the final two who would take responsibility for the nitty-gritty of the financial deal to sort things out and sign the papers.
Interactions like this, which hold such risks of misunderstanding and cultural clashes, are why many organizations are no longer satisfied with learning about cultural differences. Instead, they are looking for tools and approaches that help their staff to translate information about cultural differences into new ways of working with people from other cultures. The key step to achieve this is to define the competences that people need for working effectively across cultures.
The present authors began work in the area of intercultural management development by training people in understanding and managing cultural differences. As we worked with an increasing group of clients from every continent and many cultural backgrounds we came to realize that there are core intercultural talents and competences that can be identified, trained and developed. We worked with internationally experienced psychologists, organizational consultants, senior human resource professionals and intercultural trainers from five different cultures in developing a method to assess these intercultural competences, and to identify and improve competences in individuals and in workgroups.
The system that emerged, and which has been refined over almost 20 years of development, we call the Intercultural Readiness approach.

Intercultural Readiness: An Interlocking Set of Competences

Intercultural readiness is a mindset, and it is a core requirement for all staff dealing with people from other cultures. As we worked with an increasing number of managers and executives, in our intercultural training courses in international negotiation for global professionals, we realized that intercultural training required a two-sided approach. First, it was necessary to thoroughly understand participants’ work context and performance requirements, and how these are affected by cultural differences. Second came the work of spelling out the attitudes, ways of thinking and behaviours that would help participants to achieve their goals in their cross-cultural work environment. By defining the attitudes, ways of thinking and behaviours that support effective intercultural interaction, we built a compact but rich set of interlocking intercultural competences.
The approach that we developed works with four competences that are naturally linked to the process of intercultural interaction. Each competence has its own subset of abilities.
These are the four basic competences of our approach to intercultural effectiveness:
Intercultural Sensitivity captures how much people are interested in what makes people different because of the culture they come from; it also indicates how much we are willing to take into account the fact that our own culture has formed us, and that people from other cultures have been formed differently. Intercultural Sensitivity supports the first step in intercultural interaction, where we need to explore our differences.
Intercultural Communication assesses how flexible we are in expressing ourselves, and how mindful we are when communicating with people from other cultures. This competence is essential for managing the second step in an intercultural interaction, where differences need to be addressed in appropriate ways.
Building Commitment enables people to build strong relationships that survive tensions and conflicts, and to focus on new solutions that work for all parties, which in turn strengthen the relationship. Building commitment is vital for the third, and perhaps most complex, part of the interaction, where we need to agree on a shared approach.
Managing Uncertainty is the ability that allows people to stay alert and creative throughout the interaction process – rather than stopping exploring their differences, falling back on their automatic ways of communicating and seeking a quick fix through old solutions. Throughout the process of intercultural interaction, we need to handle uncertainty. Differences may unexpectedly pop up, our partners in a negotiation may suddenly fall silent and we don’t know what to do about it. It may take a lot of good thinking, and more time than we thought we had, to create new solutions to shared problems. The interaction itself, and its outcome, will often be uncertain, with no simple solution suggesting itself.
These four intercultural competences come into play whenever people from different cultures interact, whether they need to negotiate with foreign government officials, recruit and motivate talent in their different locations around the world, create high-performing virtual teams, or create momentum for their diversity agenda. In all these situations people need to understand different viewpoints and needs, adapt how they communicate, create commitment around shared goals and stay in charge when situations become uncertain, confusing and unpredictable.

Learning from the Talent of Others

Everyone has a unique profile of skills and talents. How to develop those you have, and improve or work around those you lack – that is the secret of intercultural readiness.
A shipping company, for example, regularly sent engineers to Hong Kong for meetings with their local provider to review the ship management. Initially those meetings were frustrating. The engineers sat across from the company’s general manager, flanked by three technicians on each side. The engineers explained what they wanted to see improved. The general manager agreed to the suggestions. But nothing happened afterwards.
This changed only when a new and culturally talented engineer joined the team. He immediately sensed that the general manager lacked the technical expertise to evaluate the engineers’ suggestions – his role was to represent the firm. The general manager had been pretending to understand the complaints so as not to lose face, and so had agreed to make improvements that were unfeasible. His technicians had the expertise, but since their boss had already agreed to the impossible they could not disagree and suggest alternatives. But they could not do what their boss had promised either and so nothing had ever been done.
The culturally gifted engineer changed things so that the engineers learned to use the formal meeting just for pleasantries and to address their issues with the technicians in private afterwards. The situation changed – now, the technicians and the engineers found solutions to the problems together, and the technicians could implement what was agreed.
That engineer’s cultural intuition came from a natural talent – that intense and acute sensitivity to our own dealings with others that we call Intercultural Sensitivity. In analysing what people talented in this area do well, we identified a set of behaviours and ways of thinking that can be practised and developed by those who are less talented in this aspect but who are able to develop the competence.
The four competences of the Intercultural Readiness approach, and how they are connected to the process of intercultural interaction, provide a clear and simple structure for learning and development. Through focusing on these four intercultural competences, it is possible to learn from the talents of others, and develop one’s own skills in dealing constructively with intercultural challenges.

Intercultural Competences and Intercultural Effectiveness

In our work on intercultural competence development, we have found it useful to distinguish between intercultural competences and intercultural effectiveness.3 Intercultural competences are a means to an end: these competences are needed in order to be interculturally effective – that is, to solve problems and achieve objectives together with people from other cultures. Which competences are needed, and to what degree, depends on the problems that need solving and the objectives we want to achieve together with others.
For a call centre agent in Mumbai servicing US customers, for example, intercultural effectiveness may include staying on top of US local news and knowing how the Red Sox are doing in the World Series. This requires rapid intake of new information and the intercultural sensitivity to quickly assess whether the customer on the other end of the line is interested in baseball or thinks of it with disdain.
A Swedish jazz composer, coming from a country where compliments are only given in cases of outstanding excellence, may need to learn to compliment his fellow performers at the Berklee College of Music in Boston more often. This requires intercultural communication skills, and in particular an understanding that in the US, compliments are a strategy for reducing social distance between him and his musicians, making his team feel comfortable and acknowledged so that they perform at their best.
An economist from New York may have to learn to be less direct when discussing next year’s budget with her Bostonian boss at Harvard. This again requires intercultural communication skills, but also the ability to build commitment, and to manage the uncertainty that results from her personal feeling that her Bostonian boss is being arrogant.
While problems and objectives determine which intercultural competences are needed – and to what level – intercultural effectiveness always requires paying heed to three criteria:4
  • connecting to people from other cultural backgrounds,
  • performing in achieving task-related goals, and
  • enjoying the pursuit of common goals in a culturally diverse environment.
In our work, we focus both on the intercultural competences that support the process of intercultural interaction and how these competences contribute to intercultural effectiveness.
Often, people in business just focus on performance, and underestimate the need to ...

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