Working and living across countries/cultures may present great opportunities but at the same time, they hold numerous challenges. Ability to manage across cultures is a competence that is becoming really important as the world gets flatter and more companies decide to go global. Adapting and succeeding in a very different culture are not easy. Some people choose to be oblivious of this topic and that impacts personal and professional growth. Though there’re numerous studies and research articles on this topic, I would like to share some of my key learnings, personal experiences and observations. This list is neither comprehensive nor listed in the order of importance.
Being sensitive to and noticing some of the key threads in norms and behaviors in the new environment within and outside office is an important starting point. This helps to understand how things work and what’s respected in the new setting. Many of the norms would be very different and may seem strange initially. The global professional needs to be respectful of the differences and try to understand the background with reasoning. Respecting individuals and cultural norms is a critical factor in adapting to any new culture.
Communication is key to avoiding misunderstandings. Many times during initial stages of interactions, it’s useful to explain the reason behind doing or asking for something that impacts others. This avoids confusion and helps to build trust especially in the initial stages of relationship building.
This is vital for success in a different cultural setting. There is a possibility that one may feel insulted or not respected in some instances. Chances are that everyone may not be aware of the nuances about other cultures and interaction styles. Stephen Covey’s teaching, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is a very useful advice to keep in mind while interacting with people from a different culture. In other cases, someone may just not be respectful or culturally intelligent. This could lead to frustrations. Being flexible and open helps to build a working relationship and trust. In my opinion, the burden of responsibility falls on the global professional to tackle an unpleasant situation with emotional maturity and intelligence. It’s very useful to have a positive ‘forgiving’ and ‘forgetful’ (unpleasant events) attitude – easier said than done.
3. Coping with the unknown,fear of failure and patience
There’re a lot of unknowns in a new environment. I’m not sure if anyone is perfectly comfortable facing unknowns. Finding information through formal and informal channels is very helpful to put one at ease. One has to also find appropriate ways to cope with stress related to uncertainties and the new environment. There may be different approaches for different people. Hobbies and avenues for entertainment provide useful options. People generally do take a certain period of time to adjust and feel comfortable in a new environment.
Even if one has good competencies, there will be mistakes along the way. On the other hand, fear of failure can inhibit people from trying out or getting exposed to new things. The normal tendency may be to stay within one’s comfort zones. There will be misunderstandings. Having lots of patience to understand, learn from mistakes, adjust and work one’s way through multiple and varied scenarios is important.
One of the leading experts in this field Fons Trompenaars advises, “We need a certain amount of humility and a sense of humor to discover cultures other than our own; a readiness to enter a room in the dark and stumble over unfamiliar furniture until the pain in our shins reminds us of where things are.” Management guru Tom Peters writes, “If you come to another’s turf with empathy, sensitivity and open ears – what the Zen masters call ‘beginner’s mind’ – you’re halfway home”.