Strategies for being culturally effective

Working across cultures can be intimidating and confusing to know what might work. Your tried and tested ways of working may fail when applied without understanding that culture and the common ground rules.As business and workplaces become more and more connected, cultural effectiveness or in other words the ability to connect and work with different cultures is seen as a critical success factor in global businesses.

Cultural effectiveness is no longer mastering the language or memorising Do’s and Don’ts of a culture. It is in fact a mindset that allows you to be intuitive about what matters to others, what motivates them and why they do what they do even if it makes no sense to you at first.

I love interacting with different cultures and learning new perspectives. In my experience of working in over 50 countries and interacting with more than 150 nationalities, I have discovered that there are some essential strategies that go a long way in ensuring success and lasting relationships when working with different cultures that have different views or insights.

There are no right or wrong cultures, they are just different

I grew up in India and moved to Switzerland .It was a huge culture shock – a steep learning curve and in this transition I realised that cultures are not right or wrong – they are just different. To understand that what makes no sense to you makes complete sense to others is the first and most important step in crossing cultures. Before you judge behaviour as right or wrong, try to find the ‘why’ behind it.

Exchange expectations and clarify assumptions

Different cultures have different values that lead to different assumptions and expectations. When we interact with people from a different culture and apply our values to interpret their behaviour, it leads to misunderstandings that can break or fail business and personal relationships.A person from a hierarchical culture expects a good manager to give instructions and assumes that speaking up or confronting his boss can be construed as disrespectful behaviour. In sharp contrast, a manager from an egalitarian culture expects decisions to be made collaboratively and assumes that people are not confident or proactive when they do not speak up or give ideas. Unintentionally, people can end up getting frustrated and annoying others. In a global scenario, it pays back well to invest time to check for assumptions and exchange expectations. It becomes even more important when you are working with other cultures virtually, without the advantage of face-to-face communication.

Be curious and show interest

‘Strangers in a new culture see only what they know’.Every new encounter and each new person you meet from a different culture brings new learning. Show a genuine interest in the country you are visiting. Ask questions and try to find out more about others. When people see that you are making sincere efforts to acknowledge and learn more about their culture, they are much more forgiving of any mistakes that you might make unintentionally. Try to be positive and make it a habit to look for something that you can appreciate and compliment.

When in Rome do (not) as the Romans

Adapting to a new culture might seem like the wisest response to being effective, but it can be counter –productive. People in any culture whether it is Swaziland or Sweden value sincerity and when you over adapt, it can come across as fake and manipulative. The trick is in striking the balance – change enough to show respect to other’s cultures but not at the cost of losing your authenticity.
Acknowledge differences and focus on similarities

Differences are not deficits. Research shows that diversity brings innovation and creativity, if managed properly.To not acknowledge differences is to not recognize their potential. So, be aware of differences and rather than judging on right or wrong, gauge the impact that the differences might have on your interactions. Jurg, a German manager in China shared that he realized that he was much more direct in his communication than his Chinese counterparts. He acknowledged in his first introduction to the team that he was German and direct and he hoped they would make allowances for that as they worked together towards their common goal of making China office one of the most profitable ones. This brought down resistance as he continued consciously to pick up different communication styles that were culturally more appropriate in various situations in China. Jurg was able to build on similarities and leverage differences productively.

Identify the cultural bridges

Every culture has people who are outliers– who do not fit the typical or norm of that society. Outliers might naturally prefer other ways or they might have lived, travelled or interacted with other countries and cultures. Embrace them as your bridges to that culture as they will have insights into both your world and theirs.

Do your homework – patiently and persistently

Crossing cultures is not easy. But it is hugely rewarding when you do it effectively. It takes patience and persistence to learn new ways of doing things and understanding that your way is not the only way. When doing business in a new culture, one of the most valuable investments you can make is to familiarise yourself with the country’s basic social customs. Just learning a few local phrases will show respect and a sincere interest in building a relationship.
Treat others as they will like to be treated

If you think you should treat others, as you will like to be treated, think again. Janet, an international retail manager likes people to be direct and tell her things as they are. However, when on an international assignment in Japan, she learnt quickly that her direct style was coming across as rude and offensive to her Japanese colleagues who preferred a much more implicit style of communication. Janet stepped out of her comfort zone and adapted her communication style to be less explicit when communicating to her Japanese team members.

Successful global leaders are comfortable with many ways of doing things with s focus on successful desired outcome. While you influence others to adopt your way, stretch yourself out of your comfort zone too. Respect different perspectives and be open to changing some of your own. But don’t forget to have fun!

This is reprinted from a post published by Monika Chauhan Stok. Monika is a thought leader in cultural diversity. Having lived across continents and worked with 150 nationalities, she is passionate about understanding what motivates people and why they behave the way they do.

if you would like to understand your cultural profile or understand more about cultural effectiveness, complete our online cultural profiler or attend one of our workshops or webinars . More information at

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