Training – Learning to work together

As organisations become increasingly global and internationally diverse, we are much more likely to work with people of other nationalities than we were 20 years ago. Moreover, international experience is highly valued. People actively seek ex-patriate assignments to enhance their careers. Short-term assignments and frequent international travel are often the norm for consultants, while those not working abroad may have some responsibility for a country other than their own. But the cultural differences involved add an extra dimension to the process of managing and consulting – and can cause difficulties and misunderstandings.

A course run by Cranfield School of Management addresses these issues.

And the demand for it, either as an open course or tailored to specific company requirements, demonstrates the growing corporate awareness of the value of cross-cultural facility among staff.

Dr Christine Communal, who designed the course with colleagues Dr Hilary Harris and Savita Kumra three years ago, says it was prompted by the increasing numbers of overseas MBA students at the college. “This year the ratio reached 50/50,” she says. “It creates very different dynamics in the classroom when you have that sort of mix of professionals and managers with totally different cultural and national backgrounds. We created the course, as an elective, initially to get the MBA students to work together better – a lot of their work is organised in learning teams, which are, in effect, multicultural teams.”

The course proved very successful, she says, and the college decided to offer it to the wider market. Last year it ran twice in open format and was tailored quite a number of times for individual companies. “We have seen incredible demand for it,” says Communal. Companies interested in the course have often just acquired a business abroad or have been through or are planning a merger or joint venture, she says. “Increasingly companies want their salesforces to go through it in order to improve their performance abroad, or an organisation wants to market across borders or develop a more European or global mindset, perhaps implementing a European strategy. There is still huge diversity within Europe so they need to be aware of all the sensitivities.” The format of the course changes to meet these differing needs. Sometimes a conference format is more suitable than the standard two to three day short course.

Says Communal: “The workforce is becoming internationally diverse and there is a requirement that people have an international mindset. But many are not too sure what that means.” She adds: “One of the problems is that because we have the same technology across the planet, travel is so easy and companies compete globally, increasingly we assume that people can work together without problems. We assume that it will be easy and enriching to work with people from different cultural backgrounds.

But that isn’t the case and this assumption of globalisation means that people tend not to understand or appreciate cultural differences – and they get a big shock.”

She cites as an example a consultant who has carried out an assignment in the UK for different clients so successfully that he is chosen to carry out the work abroad. “When he gets there, though, everything that he has applied before in terms of communicating with people and implementing culture change doesn’t work. That’s the culture shock – and it can be very frustrating.”

The key element of the Cranfield course, she says, is that it is culture generic, focusing on the general principles underpinning successful interccultural communication. “You can read up about management in Japan, for example, but you can’t avoid every pitfall. And the increasingly diverse workforce means you are bound to meet people whose culture you don’t understand.

So what do you do? You use the basic principles of respecting and understanding differences, raising tolerance levels, dissociating the individual from the culture and avoiding the stereotype.”

The Cranfield course comprises three steps, she says. The first is to raise awareness so that attendees understand themselves and their own culture. “Most of the time people are unaware of their own cultural background,” says Communal. “Like fish who are not aware of the water in which they swim but become uncomfortable if the temperature is changed or salt added, for example.”

She asks attendees to reflect on their first work experience, what they learnt from their parents, and who their role models were. “Then they begin to see how they have been influenced in their attitudes to work,” she says.

The second phase of the course attempts to give attendees tools and frameworks so that they can quantify culture rather than simply see it as “a black box”. Says Communal: “We talk about the dimensions of culture. Some are very individualist while others are a lot more collectivist.” In a more individualist culture such as that of the US, she says, people do not see themselves as responsible for the welfare of brothers or sisters, for example. Their primary responsibility is to take care of themselves.

“In a more collectivist culture, individuals see themselves as belonging to a group first and will defend the interests of that group.” Scandinavian and Asian cultures tend towards this pole.

Another useful framework for management, she says, is “power distance”, which concerns the distance between someone at the top of an organisation and the bottom in terms of hierarchy, respect and how accessible people are. Once people have been given such frameworks they have a language, the tools to talk, she adds.

The last stage of the course looks at how to reconcile cultural differences.

“If you look at polarisation between individualism and collectivism, such as an American and a Chinese consultant working together, how do they find a way of doing it that suits them without frustrating them?,” says Communal. “Reconciling involves looking at a range of ways of doing things and creating something new that will encompass the best of both worlds,” she says. “To do this you need to be quite creative and innovative and you need to have raised awareness to be able to talk about it in a non-threatening way with people who might be at opposite ends of the scale. It is not about compromise – you are not giving up something but creating something new.”

In practice, the course includes coaching in cross-cultural communication, verbal and non-verbal, exercises in cross-cultural negotiations and looks at the dynamics of multi-cultural teams and inter-cultural marketing.

The techniques used include experiential activities such as role plays and simulations, lecturing and straight delivery, reflection and visioning.

“We get people to reflect on the links between what they have learnt and their work situation,” says Communal. “And we ask people to imagine how it feels to work well in a multicultural team. We encourage them to practice the techniques they have learnt and report back.”

There is a lot of sharing of experience, she says. “People like the opportunity to say what has happened to them in their career in a safe way.” The size of the group is important here – Communal likes to have a maximum of 20 people. “There is a lot of sharing, learning and listening – you can’t do that with large numbers, you lose the quality and trust within the group,” she says.

Role plays which simulate culture shock are a useful prompt, she adds, often allowing people to open up about deep frustration. “Often they say ‘this is exactly what happened at work and I can’t believe I reacted in the same way’.”

For Communal the rewards come when she sees results among attendees.

“On the last course I ran I felt one or two individuals were near breaking point in their jobs, working almost constantly with other nationalities and finding it extremely stressful. They were very tense at the beginning but as the course went on they began to challenge themselves and in the reflections saw ways of doing it. At the end they felt a lot more confident.”

Ironically, it is often the people with the greatest experience and cultural sensitivity who want to come on the course. “They realise that it is so important and has such a deep effect on the management of people and they want to learn more. One of the issues is how to get to the people who need it most, who are not aware of it,” she says. “The ones who totally dismiss the need for cross-cultural understanding are often the most destructive in organisations or multicultural teams.”

Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist

Cranfield’s Communal says work and humour are powerfully associated in the UK. She cites a case-study used on the course, which begins with an interview extract with a British manager: “At the beginning of the decade, our medium-sized British company was taken over by a Dutch Group.

Two Dutch directors came over to meet our management team. We were all a bit anxious about the takeover. At first, we were all sitting in silence at the meeting. One of the Dutch directors was acting chairperson. Then, somebody told a joke and people started laughing. Eventually, we realised that the Dutch looked upset so everybody went silent and the Dutch chairperson said: ‘No jokes please, this is work’.”

Communal says there are a number of questions here for people on the course to consider: What assumptions do British managers and Dutch managers make about telling jokes? The atmosphere in the boardroom. The implications of this first encounter for the integration of the British company within the Dutch Group. How this could have been avoided?

She comments: “Long after the incident, the British manager still recalled the incident with shock and disbelief. Indeed, one of the characteristics of communication is that once it has occurred, it is irreversible and impacts on future interactions. However, communication goes both ways, and the behaviour of the British manager in the boardroom had a lasting impact on the Dutch. Had they made a mistake in acquiring a company in Britain whose managers seemed so unprofessional?”

She adds: “To redress this situation, it is essential to establish that the incident is a cross-cultural one. Indeed, the behaviour of the British and that of the Dutch is perfectly normal and justified. Humour is a good thing at work in Britain, while it is more appropriate after working hours in the Netherlands. The cultural assumptions of ‘appropriate behaviour’ are different and this is the source of difficulties. This realisation should allow decentring the incident without blaming a particular individual or group.

“Unfortunately, cross-cultural misunderstandings are not always conscious. They then become extremely difficult to manage. Effective cross-cultural communication therefore requires a strong sense of self awareness and awareness of one’s own cultural bias, a good measure of tolerance – and a touch of carefully chosen and timed sense of humour!”

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