We Are Not In Kansas Anymore: Managing Cross Cultural Conflict (Part 1 of 2)
I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore . . . and with those words Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz embarked on a remarkable journey in an effort to return home.
Of course, here in the real world, home as my extensive travel schedule would suggest, can be any one of multiple destination points around the world.
What I’ve learned or perhaps gained in terms of wisdom and experience from my international travel has provided me with an intrinsic view of different cultures. I have learned that what resonates in America can be offensive to other countries. As a result, gaining a firm understanding on the nuances of doing business in what I will call the global community is critical to creating relationships. Knowing your audience in advance of what you say and anticipating how they will react is paramount to success. Respecting different cultures and their customs are essential to building trust.
In essence, there is more to communicating that simply learning the language. This is one of the reasons why I believe that prevention is the best form of medicine as it diffuses potential points of conflict before they occur. Investing time in doing homework will help you to feel greater comfort and confidence.
Nowhere is this approach more critical than when working in virtual teams comprised of individuals from different cultural backgrounds collaborating on an important project. This is especially true when face-to-face time is limited to communicating over the virtual realms of the Internet. While convenient, the lack of personal interaction in which all individuals are in the same room at the same time means that there is a greater risk of missing the subtleties of body language that can help to ensure that discussions are kept on a productive and even keel.
Given the dynamics associated with the above, here are five important tips to keep in mind when participating in a multicultural collaborative effort so as to minimize the likelihood for a major disconnect;
- Real life experiences are the best teachers: Recognize and accept the fact that there is no substitute for real life experience. As is the case with sports teams who practice in preparation for a game, no amount of practice will actually replace true game experience. As a result, and if you have never interacted with different cultures, seek the advice of others – preferably from those who were born in that country who can offer important insight and advice. I had the privilege to receive advice from individuals of German descent, explaining that prior to working in Waldorf, Germany, I first needed to establish credibility before I initiated small talk and inquired about family life. As I prepared to work in Brazil, expatriates living in the US explained that direct aggressive feedback wouldn’t work in their culture. Contrary to Germany, small talk was a prerequisite for building trust, rapport and relationships.
- Celebrate differences: Accept the fact that differences can be perceived as potential for misunderstanding and potentially becoming a threat . . . at least at first. This means that you should not be surprised if there is a natural apprehension on the part of individual team members, at least in the early stages of meeting. Like the first day of high school when you feel a combination of both apprehension and excitement at the prospects of meeting a new teacher as well as new classmates, until each member of the team becomes more comfortable with one another communication is likely to be somewhat cautious and measured. Look at celebrating differences and demonstrate genuine curiosity.
- Seek commonality: Actively seek to identify points of common or shared views, as opposed to focusing on just the differences. The similarities can serve as good building blocks as we tend to trust someone who looks and acts like us. Commonality speeds up relationship building and will help you to understand how to prevent conflict from occurring. It can at least make the differences when they arise, less traumatic or disruptive. Take the initiative to explain how your culture is not so different. Your sharing of your values will more than likely help others to want to relate to you. Never assume people know what you are thinking about.
- Ditch stereotyping: Above all else, avoid stereotyping which can lead to wrong and counterproductive assumptions about cross cultural team members. I am not talking about blatant prejudices here, but the imperceptible preconceived ideas and opinions that are often formed by the anecdotal references of others including the media. While there are certainly cultural attributes associated with specific cultures along the lines of etiquette or dress, to broadly and blindly extend this to ideas or personal expertise is a recipe for disaster.
- Embrace change: Finally, recognize and anticipate that as people from different cultures interact on an increasingly regular basis, there will invariably be changes. In other words, culture idiosyncrasies do in fact change to varying degrees over time, so being able to adapt to these differences throughout your entire career will enable you to facilitate positive interactions on a consistent basis.
Of course and despite our best efforts, conflict can and will likely arise from time-to-time.
In part 2 of this series I will talk about what you can do to effectively deal with conflicts within a multicultural team setting.