Cross-Cultural Sensitivity and Communication

In an increasingly globalized world and multi-cultural workplace, professionals face many challenges including dealing with cross cultural sensitivities. How individuals, teams and organizations work effectively across these cultural differences was the subject of the talk by Brian Schroeder, Head of Culture and Communication, Microsoft, at SHRM India’s Bangalore Forum meet held in June.

During the course of the evening, Brian discussed the key issues of cross cultural sensitivities that exist in the field including some myths that he decided to debunk. He shared some of his own experiences with cultural diversity during his work in China. He spoke about cultural differences in concrete terms and what they mean in the real world. He also discussed the problems that may arise because of how we are wired. According to him, as professionals, we have to manage these challenges promptly so that we can deliver on our targets and keep our companies and businesses running. The ability to communicate, collaborate and create across the cultural differences is a critical competence for the 21st century professional. How effectively we work with culture plays a significant role in productivity and in our collaborative efforts across geographies.

He elucidated his point through analogies he had gathered to explain culture and how it affects all of us in our workplace.
Fish in a bowl: Just as fish swim in the water and are not aware of the nature of that water, we human beings, depending on the opportunities that we have had or have taken, may or may not be aware of the reality or the air outside our own bowl.
Onion: Each one of us, through our up-bringing, education, work and experiences in life, are layered beings.
Sunglasses: Culture enables us to frame issues. We look at the world according to the tint or the color of the lenses that we wear. But as professionals, we have a responsibility towards our organizations to ensure we have the right lenses.
Iceberg: Just as a larger part of the iceberg is under water, there are a lot of things happening in any interaction that are below the surface. We have to make an effort to see not only what is above but also what is below the surface.

Our attitudes, traditions, beliefs and values together define who we are and when these values are shared by a social group, it forms our culture. This social group can be as small as a family or as large as a nation. Culture influences how we think, what we do and how we look at the world, just as we would wear a particular color of sunglasses. Culture is learned and is influenced by the people around us and the interactions that we have over time, until it becomes like the water all around us.

Once we know and understand culture and how it shapes all of us, we need to look at how to address the issues that come up because of cultural differences. Brian quoted Edward Hall who said, “Years of study have convinced me that the real job is not to understand foreign cultures but to understand our own.”
He emphasized that we need to get to know ourselves first. Each one of us have four layers of diversity: a) core personality or who we are; b) internal dimension, which includes gender, age, race, ethnicity and physical ability; c) external dimension, which includes marital status, income, geography, habits, education, religion, etc. and d) the organizational exterior that is defined by functional level, company, division or department we work for among other things. We bring these layers of complexity to the workplace with ourselves. We need to start by examining who we are before we look at others.

It is easy for us to look at cultural differences with other people and think ‘I need to get to know these people before I begin to work with them’. As stated in the quotation, it is supercritical to look at ourselves. Brian emphasized that the most effective learning, preparation, development that we do for our businesses and organizations and for ourselves is to understand what our values are and what we bring to the table.

Brian referred to a study by Accenture that interviewed nearly 200 executives across senior levels and found that there were four key areas where they faced difficulties and all these areas had issues relating to some aspect of communication. The areas of difficulty are how decisions are made in different cultures, what their attitudes are towards task completion, how they resolve conflicts and how important protocol and hierarchy are in their system. It is important to be sensitive to the cultural differences. There is a lot of diversity in the world we live in. While there is a lot of comfort in working with people of same culture, there are benefits of working in a multi-cultural environment. There are fresh ideas, new concepts and different working styles that we can learn from. If we find a way to work well within the multicultural groups, there can be tremendous success. But if we are unable to get the working right, we can fail spectacularly. At one end of the spectrum, the group would be highly effective and successful and at the other end highly ineffective that can sometimes have a disastrous impact on business. So the area in the middle where we work with similar culture groups is a safe and comfortable environment. We may avoid risks but we also do not have the advantage of new ideas and solutions.

Managing people and solving problems can also vary across cultures. There are different styles of expressing disagreement in cultures. It can be through discussion, engagement, accommodation or through a dynamic style, within which our communication style could be direct or indirect, restrained or expressive. These are cultural nuances that influence expression as well as working styles. Brian illustrated the differences between direct and indirect cultures through the use of proverbs from those countries.
“Hear one understand ten.” - Japanese
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.” - American
“It is good to know the truth but better to speak of palm trees.” - Arab
Similarly, whether people are restrained or emotional is illustrated with these proverbs.
“The first one to raise their voice loses the argument.” - Chinese
“What is nearest the heart is nearest the mouth.” - Irish
“After the storm fair weather, after the storm joy” - Russia
In any pressure situation, we always revert to the core disposition of who we are culturally. So, it is important to explore more about culture and be aware of the defaults.

“There is a myth,” he said, “that there is better communication between people by simply getting them in the same place.” A lot of business is done virtually now and people from across the globe come together to work. It is assumed that professionals working for the same organization and project will come together automatically and work harmoniously. “This is definitely a myth. Working with a team in the virtual world is a great challenge. We forget that body language forms 80% of the communication. So, in the virtual world we start with 20% efficiency.”

As organizations, businesses and managers we sometimes believe that if we have chosen our best person for the job and prepared them well, we are ready to go to another country and close a business deal. We forget that in a new environment, in a new culture and in a new setting, the person may be totally ineffective. We have to understand the nuances of the working of the culture we are planning to do business with.
The key takeaway from both these above situations is that we should not assume that doing business with people from another culture will happen by default. We have to make it happen, said Brian.

It is important first to acknowledge that differences exist and also that they can be bridged. According to Brian, there are usually six stages of development in how people conceptualize differences.
Denial: In this stage, there is absolutely no interest in acknowledging cultural differences. There is no curiosity, no reaching out and no involvement with another culture.
Defense: The best way to be is the way I am. There is no recognition of the differences.
Minimization: Statistically speaking this is where most of us are. We take strength in similarity but because of that we miss out on some important aspects or rather miss the contextualized, richer picture.
Acceptance: At this stage, people are very flexible but not ready to creatively bridge the differences.
Adaptation: Bridging differences, seeking creative solutions to overcome differences.
Integration: Celebrate the differences and arrive at a shared space where all differences can be accommodated. It is, of course, a challenge to celebrate the differences without minimizing them.

An organization needs to develop processes to create a shared space, a global workplace, where differences can be bridged, where people are comfortable being who they are. To achieve that, it is important to understand the business protocol of another culture, their decision-making process and core values. To arrive at this global set of values, organizations have to provide structures and skill sets. The leadership and management cadre need to have the mindset to recognize the differences in a nuanced and richly contextual way, and celebrate the differences once comfortable with them. In closing, Brian said that professionals need to have the knowledge, understanding and respect for another culture and most importantly to assume a positive intent behind everything that may be unfamiliar or not immediately comprehensible about another culture.


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