Understanding Your Cultural Intelligence

It is becoming increasingly important in cross-cultural communication to learn skills that allow you to understand and communicate with people who are totally unlike you. By exercising this skill, it is vital to come back to the principle of knowing your core and flex. Your core and flex dictates your behaviours, values and beliefs, and distinguishing between those elements that are incredibly crucial to your personal makeup and aspects of your life that you can not live without at all, and the rest of your makeup that can be moulded into any situation.

If you find that your core diminishes into only covering the smallest part of your life, people tend to stop putting their trust into these people as they have no beliefs or values imbedded in their work or relationships. However, on the other end of the spectrum, where people tend to hold their mores so close to themselves that their core becomes their entire self, adaptation in a constantly evolving society becomes so difficult that they often get left behind. Often what can provoke people to close or open their core depend on their levels of judgments and prejudgments, and how ready they are to becoming more accepting of different belief systems around them. Further, those people who grow up or live in multicultural societies, where their core is tested everyday, are more aware of their flex and how important it is to not let them intertwine

Having cultural intelligence is not something that relies purely on studying and understanding the outside world, a world of new cultures and languages and traditions. It’s core relies on understanding your own culture and its different levels of importance, and how it may manoeuvre in difficult situations. Knowing your core will help you work better in your team and as a leader. The stronger you are in your core and the more flexible you are in your flex, the greater trust you will build, the more confidence you will emit and the more you will be able to manage yourself across many different platforms, people and environments.

Indirect and Direct Communication in a Business Setting

One of the greatest — and subtlest — challenges in global business is managing differences in communication style. Imagine the following situation. Peter, an American manger, is organising the installation of innovative design software for a Japanese marketing company. Peter works on a brief, and estimates the final date of installation to be in 30 days. He communicates this to the Japanese company, and they respond by thanking him profusely for selecting the date and mention how eager they are to get the installation in place. However, the next day, Peter is surprised to find a frantic call from his boss about how upset the Japanese company is about the installation date, and the need for it to be a lot sooner, otherwise they will lose a lot of potential clients.

In your communication toolbox, direct and indirect skills are like a hammer and screwdriver; both are helpful, but you need to use the right tool at the right time. In cultures with direct communication style (which tend to correlate with task-oriented cultures), such as U.S. Americans, Australians, Germans, and Anglo Canadians, both literal truthfulness as well as efficiency in communication are highly valued and to some extent are a higher priority than personal or political sensitivities, especially in a business setting.

However, in indirect cultures, on the other hand (Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Saudi Arabians, for example), directly communicating negative information is seen as impolite and crude, even in a business setting. In these situations, polite excuses or evasions, which both parties usually know and recognise as such, are given, and in extreme cases even outright fictions are invented—again with recognition by both parties that a diplomatic strategy is being employed.

Here are some useful pointers to identifying the type of communication used by clients or employees:

Direct Communication Indirect Communication
Tell it like it is. The facts speak for themselves. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Tell someone what you think they want to hear.
Honesty is the best policy. Being polite is more important than being honest.
It’s okay to say no. Avoid saying no; say “maybe” or “possibly,” even if you mean “no.”
The truth is more important than sparing someone’s feelings. Don’t beat around the bush. If the truth might hurt, soften it.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Read between the lines.
Take communication at face value. Handle communication to save face.
Time is money. Get to the point. Small talk before business is important.
It’s okay to disagree with your boss at a meeting. Criticism of others, especially people with more authority, should be unspoken or careful and veiled.

One critical piece of advice is to remember that when you’re communicating with someone from a less direct culture, you can’t take everything you hear at face value. It is a hard element to grasp, but where you work in a global company where there is continuous communication with people from different cultures, it is vital to not assume from our pre-built presumptions, and ask questions where needed.

A second tip is to always be on the lookout for the difference between the actual message you hear and the “meta-message.” There are many ways to interpret messages and intentions. By discovering these different interpretations, it is helpful to send out probes that enable you to hopefully gather more information about the true meaning of their communication. This may come in a form of reconfirmation, or asking if they would prefer a different date or time of completion of a project.

What is Organisational Culture, and Why is it a Vital Organ for Multi-Cultural Companies?

Many people limit the meaning of culture to stand within a race, a religion or an accent heard in conversation, but it in fact spreads to so many elements of our lives. Organisational culture is defined as the way in which members of an organisation relate to each other, their work and the outside world in comparison to other organisations. It can enable or hinder an organisation’s strategy – Geert Hofstede. It is made up of instinctive repetitive habits and emotional responses which are self-sustained, and brought into each company by each individuals personal values, attitude and beliefs.

One way to observe this, is by looking to the different workplace structures of the east and the west. It can be readily established that the existence of high power distance values and a bureaucratic culture in Asian firms is very uniform, where for example, important decisions are made by the owners and senior management of Korean and Chinese firms. Owners and executives are on top of any bureaucratic structure in these firms and direction and orders tend to be top-down with little delegation and empowerment. On the other hand, despite the seemingly bureaucratic workplace structure of Australian companies, they are mainly used to coordinate activities and reporting purposes. Held increasingly by values of equalitarianism, democracy and participation, there is greater delegation and decentralisation of decision making and control. In both situations, each organisational structure has taken advantage of the beliefs and values of their employers, and structured it into a workable organisation that evolves the needs of both parties involved.

 

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At an organisational level, culture is a basis of all interactions between the people in that workplace.  Our collective ability to constructively manage workplace relationships, particularly in the face of inevitable tension and conflict, defines our organisational culture.

In order to stimulate the growth of organisational culture, it is beneficial to start noting those actions that benefit the company and lead it towards a positive outcome, and utilise them more frequently. These things may include the way your employees speak to clients or the way in which meetings are lead, and it is important that these align with the business strategy. Therefore, instead of focusing on changing the cultures themselves, it is often more appropriate to change behaviours in the workplace, as they tend to be more tangible and easily appropriated. Cultures do not tend to change automatically, but they do turn to follow behaviour chains.

Understanding and realising the cultural organisation of your company is only the starting point to how to improve in a manner that will increase the odds of financial and operational success. The next step involves the recognition and observation of different practices of cultural organisation in leadership, workload distribution, work capabilities, relationships and structural controls.

 

Read more: Five key factors that determine organisational culture.

Embracing Culture Through Communication

 

As cross-cultural communicators, leaders or students, we tend to focus a lot of our time on bridging cultural barriers and overcoming challenges to create an environment where we feel unified. However, as important as it is to find a common ground, it is also vital to embrace the way in which different cultures move and evolve in their own way, and to take the time to be curious about those differences.

The modern human is one who can not only adjust to change, but is also one who can stand strong within their core, while allowing various adaptations of cultures to move smoothly around them.

So what culturally relative areas of communication must we embrace? To be frank, the answer is just about everything. There are, however, a few areas that stand to be more prominent than the rest.

 

Silence.

Cultures differ with respect to what is defined as silence and when it is deemed appropriate. It has been well established that Western countries hold themselves on rhetoric being an intrinsic part of self-expression. Americans, as a general example, think of communication as essentially a verbal activity and are subsequently uncomfortable with long periods of silence. It is often seen as a moment of awkwardness and uneasiness.

However, in a country like Japan, silence has become institutionalised to become a recognised social behaviour. In Japan, it is very important to care about (kiwo tsukau) and to understand (sassuru) others. The study of body language, including the use of the hands, body posture, gesture, facial expressions and silence are all treated as an undivided whole.

Where these two cultures interact in social situations, a clash occurs, where one wants to get to know the other by talking, and the other feels it is inappropriate to talk until they are familiar with the other. This leads to cross-cultural stereotyping, where those who are verbal see the silent culture as uncooperative or unskilled, and the silent stereotypes the talkative as garrulous and ill-mannered.

 

What to say.

Once you do decide when to talk, what do you say? Do you ask questions? We take it for granted that questions are basic to the educational setting. How would one learn anything if one does not ask why, or how? Often hierarchy in cultures dictates who can ask the questions, but questions are also regarded as too powerful to throw around, because they force a response.

When questions are avoided, stories are often used. To think historically, many tribes and prehistoric cultures used stories to explain why certain things occurred, and taught important lessons. Take India, a country of over 415 different languages, has existed for ages with all these hyphenated identities but without any major catastrophe. Stories played a vital part in the process of consolidation and cementing cultures together. It is the ethos that was woven all through the cultures. It is so important to continue embracing story, and educating and communicating through story, especially in  such a quickly evolving, technology based society we have today. Cross-cultural communication is effectively possible if one attempts to bring in stories of the cultural other into one’s own cultural realm.

 

Intonation.

Another level of difference is intonation. Intonation varies from language to language and from culture to culture with different cultures that use the same language often being able to draw different meanings using the same words where the only modification is in the intonation. The understanding of intonations across different cultures is of paramount importance for communication to be effective in an intercultural setting. This is because the underlying basis of any communication process is to create understanding and this understanding can only be derived by the use of the language understood by the audience.

Tiny differences in intonation can throw an interaction completely off without the speaker knowing that something they said caused the problem. Intonation is made up of differences in pitch, loudness, and rhythm – features of talk, we use both to show how we mean what we say, and to express special meanings.

 

Cross-cultural communication is like trying to follow a route on which someone has turned the signposts around. All the familiar signposts are there, but when you follow them they don’t lead you in the right direction. That is the constant conflict that cross-cultural communicators have almost every day. By going through only a few of the elements of cross-cultural communication, we are reminded that this is only the natural progression of having people from different cultural backgrounds communicate with one another. If we all remind ourselves that others may not have understood what we said, it may go a long way to make all foreign language learners and communicators a little more sane!

Managing Multicultural Teams

Multicultural teams offer a variety of advantages to large companies, including a deep knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive customer service and innovative ideas from different cultural experiences. However, where many people from different cultures, have different traditions, complex communication styles and a variety of beliefs and values, issues may arise and workplaces may breakdown.

 

As a manager or human resources coordinator, your role in a team relies heavily on how these groups of people can overcome challenges successfully, and strive to stay above any future issues. This short video examines four main challenges that creates barriers to a team’s success:
  1. Communication – Western cultures tend to speak directly, whereas in many other cultures, this is considered impolite and aggressive. This misunderstanding can cause friction and imbalances between leaders and team members.
  2. Accents and fluency – Where non-native speakers struggle to tie words together in a fluent and concise way, other team members tend not to value or listen to their opinion as much as they would if their colleague was a native speaker
  3. Hierarchy and authority – A differing structure of flat and hierarchical authority composition, often leads to a breakdown in respect between colleagues.
  4. Decision making – Different speeds and styles of decisions making, such as thinking instinctively vs analytically, create conflicts where some peoples decision will be undervalued.

By dealing with these challenges, there were four corresponding solutions to solve these issues: adaptation through changing the shape or makeup of the team; managerial intervention, by setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager; structural intervention, by changing the shape or makeup of the manager; and exit, by removing a team member when all other options have failed

Through early intervention and setting out structures and norms, teams and managers can then engage with everyone on the team, and find challenges that stem from culture.

The Strengths of the Sentence

Many people who work with clients day in and day out, or within businesses that rely heavily on communication, often don’t realise the importance of the sentence. It is often a lonely structure in a crowd of words, thrown around haphazardly, ineptly manoeuvring its way through emails while trying to avoid irritation in its reader, or in the worst-case scenario – aggravation.

However, if one masters the skill of clear and appropriate sentence structure, it will lead to positive, strategic and simpler communication. Adding the correct emphasis in the areas that need it, and applying the right amount of elegance and sophistication, gives influence and authority to any written communication. Here are some examples of sentences in different forms that can be used to achieve this:

  • The head-on sentence
    • These are preferred in business communication for their straightforwardness as they place the main subject or request at the very beginning of the sentence
    • Find the key subject in your sentence and start there
      • g. Sentence structure assists your emails in becoming refined and elegant forms of communication.
  • The build-up sentence
    • This is a useful way to provide important background information earlier in the sentence while suspending the main idea until the end of the sentence
      • g. Good communication is increasingly important as we head into the world of Artificial Intelligence and the key component to doing this well is sentence structure.
  • The interrupted sentence
    • These sentences are vital to interrupt the rigid flow of written communication that reveals a natural, spoken, informal feel
      • g. Sentence structure is vital, albeit difficult to get right, for quality communication.
  • The coordinated sentence
    • This sentence gives equal emphasis to a pair of main subjects and may be a simple way to express to the client that they are of equal importance
      • g. Strong vocabulary and appropriate word choice will make your sentences powerful and sentence structure will make them orderly and concise.
  • The subordinated sentence
    • This sentence has two main purpose; to provides a necessary transition, indicating a time, place or cause and effect between the two ideas in the sentence; and educe the importance of one clause so that a reader understands which of the two ideas is more important. Again, a useful way to express to the client the importance of one subject or request over another
      • g. You should practice by writing many examples and choose the best one before submitting your final draft.
  • The parallel sentence
    • This sentence provides a repetition of the same pattern of words or phrases to show stress the importance of the subject or request. It also helps the reader take in the information due to the familiar structure
      • g. Sentences work best when they vary in length throughout the paragraph but maintain consistency of form within the sentence.
  • The minor sentence
    • By selectively and skilfully using this small, incomplete sentence after more complex ones, the writer can break up large amounts of informative and dense text to keep the receiver attentive and understanding of the main subject or request of the written communication.
      • g. Got it?

Are We Culturally Clumsy?

Culture Meeting

Do you remember the last culturally clumsy situation you were in? Or, the last time you said something that was not quite right, and you just couldn’t understand how to remedy it? I got to thinking about this the other night at a Cultural Intelligence seminar, where a woman asked, “What can I do to rise above the feeling that I’m always making cultural mistakes?”

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why did she think she was wrong? Who was right?

Being culturally intelligent is a vital role played by all those that communicate in the workplace – from leaders of a business, to those in support roles. It is particularly necessary in Australian workplaces where the hierarchy is traditionally quite flat and we see a wide range of cultures consistently intermingling.

One of the biggest challenges that we face in achieving cultural awareness, is not necessarily through verbal communication, but in listening and removing stereotypes of how people from different cultures connect. By communicating and appreciating the differences between cultures first, a workplace can then build its rapport of verbal communication. As an example, I worked with Xiaoli a few years ago, who everyone first thought was incredibly shy and was not confident in bringing new ideas to the table. However, after a few client meetings, it became clear, that she did in fact have many great ideas, and would willingly and confidently share them, but only when invited to do so. This opened a new avenue for her leaders to understand her better, and the way in which she communicated in the workplace.

For her managers, it was helpful to learn this difference and for Xiaoli, it allowed her to feel more accepted and part of the team. However, the slippery slope, that has us descend into judgement – whether it be of the other person or of ourselves being – will never allow us to be empathetic nor to embrace the innovation, creativity and joy that comes from opening up to cultural, personal or any type of difference – whether we are experiencing it locally or abroad, with a colleague or client.

While I was digesting all these thoughts, I created this activity that I want to share with you. The key objective of it, is to reduce confusion, build certainty and generate communication confidence for you.

To improve your cultural awareness, I suggest following three main stages to create positive self-awareness of how you feel in your cultural surroundings:

  1. Reflect daily and create a safe place that you can learn, rehearse, practice and improve and continue observing your cultural interactions and their nature
  2. Create weekly objectives for yourself to address what it is that you want to improve about yourself
  3. Create a discussion at the end of each week, to find a way to start implementing what it is that you have learnt not only about yourself, but about language techniques that break down barriers and about the environment around you.

Neuroscience Helps Foster Diversity in the Workplace

As life gets more complex and sophisticated, we start to see the benefits of fine-tuning things and that includes how we communicate, solve problems, generate ideas and lead teams.

 

Simple strategies for improving cross cultural communication is a long-lasting way to embed new and more inclusive ways of building strong client relationships, conducting internal meetings and paving the way towards more fulfilled team members and successful businesses.

 

E4B can work with your staff and leaders in navigating the path towards more productive, internal communication methods.

 

Check out this article…

“Today’s tech-savvy children will grow up to expect more diversity in the workplace. Research proves they’re on the right track.”

Source: Neuroscience Helps Foster Diversity in the Workplace

6 myths about English at work

“There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” Susan Cain.

Learning a language is an illusive skill. It can create great joy in being able to communicate across boundaries, but equally, sometimes, great fear – fear of making mistakes and not being able to express yourself fully and, therefore, the feeling of having your personality suppressed.

Across many professional industries, I often work with staff members who have been identified as having weak English language skills, and it is often suggested that brushing up on grammar and building vocabulary banks will increase skills to a level more adequate for the job.

At the same time, I have learnt that there is a broad range of understanding around what it is to speak another language in the workplace, as well as there being little understanding of the differences between communication and language skills.

From the outside, it is easier for managers and recruiters to identify weaknesses of fluency and vocabulary in their non-native speaking colleagues and candidates. However, most staff members undergoing coaching themselves feel the need to build capacity around

  • developing rapport,
  • communicating effectively in meetings,
  • giving effective presentations,
  • delivering persuasive messages in both indirect and more direct ways, or
  • smoothly interacting with colleagues and clients by effectively using small talk.

That is why it is imperative to infuse cross-cultural and general communication components into language proficiency coaching, at the corporate level. While staff members can have ranging capabilities in language and cultural intelligence, the two are not always linked. There are many other myths around language that can provide serious challenges for senior management and human resources staff. Here are a few of those myths.

  1. Language proficiency is job proficiency. It is true that a lack of language proficiency can lead to many challenges in productivity, collaboration, customer and even staff retention. However, promoting or hiring the candidate due to English language fluency alone could lead to lost opportunities by not engaging with other highly gifted and adaptable candidates who are yet to fully master their corporate confidence in English.
  1. Fluent English equals a good communicator. Just because someone speaks fluently, does not mean they have the best ideas, strongest leadership capabilities or even best communication skills. Skills in persuasive language, meeting behaviour and presentation delivery can be nurtured with some linguistic refinement and strategic tools.
  1. We are better off laterally hiring middle management staff with native English communication skills. Candidates coming from other companies have learnt another company’s culture and now have to become a good fit in the new culture. Younger, graduate candidates who are nurtured linguistically and otherwise, learn the company culture from the beginning and feel valued when the company invests in their professional skills development and are, therefore, more likely to show loyalty to the company. This will also reduce costs around high rates of recruitment turnover.
  1. Native English speaking staff members are more confident. When considering who is speaking up in meetings or even who is attending meetings, it might be easier to single out the native English speakers. In speaking with non-native staff members, it has been a recurring comment that it is one thing to operate in a meeting where everyone is a non-native speaker and a complete other thing where there is a dominant group of native speakers. Research shows that even the most proficient non-native speakers feel intimidated in native-speaker environments. This suggests that there is a need for all staff to consider a unified approach to language in multinational teams and how communication is working.
  1. Language has nothing to do with culture. A fluent language user is not the same thing as being culturally proficient. However, language weakness is often more a case of finding the right linguistic cues to meet the new culture or hit the right mark when dealing with multinational teams.
  1. Non-native speakers need to improve their skills. This, of course, is true in many cases, but it is not the only element that has to change in multinational teams. Native speakers have a role to play when there is a range of fluency levels. They cannot continue to talk as if talking with people of their same culture and language and managers need to manage this carefully. Native speakers might need to slow down slightly, use less colloquial terminology and be proactive in assist co-workers to participate in the conversation.

Good language skills are not just about fluency and a good bank of vocabulary. It’s also about carefully placed questions, listening, ensuring understanding has been achieved and, most importantly, the reading of subtle cues and reactions in sensitive situations. The answer is refining a combination of cross-cultural capability and linguistic proficiency.

The good news is that all these things can be learnt and it is better to invest in the people who have the raw skills, business potential and technical competencies to get the job done – rather than responding to the most fluent, confident and loudest speaker.

Do not let language proficiency cloud management and recruitment decision and belief systems around who is the strongest candidate for the job.

Ted Talk of the Week – The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

I was instantly attracted to this new Ted Talk because I feel like I have often fallen into this habit of urging my students to be bold and get out there and put themselves forward. Be noticed!

Parindra – The Extrovert

I have often held up my extroverted students as examples. I’ve celebrated Parindra the confident, gregarious student who somehow made me his best friend in the breaks with his deft social skills and see-through flattery, which, I hate to admit, somehow worked on me. You must think I’m shallow…

I guess I constantly see people like Parindra get ahead. They get their foot in the door by being charming and endlessly putting themselves forward for opportunities even when there don’t seem to be any.

The Extrovert in Australia

But I guess what this Ted Talk made me see was that extroverts are supremely celebrated across America, and I would say Australia too, and maybe unjustly. I suspect, however, this isn’t the case in many cultures, where being predominantly a quiet, independent worker is much more respected and rewarded. I imagine a leader also looks different in this culture.

Leadership in Australia

Parindra will do well in Australia – I have no doubt. However, I would like to see Australia become less focused on the lion and start to celebrate the owl. Sharing the leadership between extroverts and introverts is also in line with embracing a more diverse workforce – a more diverse Australia. We need to stop seeing just the Richard Bransons as the quintessential leaders.

Back to teaching – my promise to my students

I will make more of an effort in my classes in the future to nurture the more introverted students and diversify my activities to accommodate the quiet thinkers, those that need quiet time to reflect and come up with potentially more well-thought out plans and solutions to problems and ultimately and hopefully I will nurture a quietly confident leader or two that will embrace a more diverse and thoughtful workforce. Optimistic, maybe… or maybe not?

So, in the words of Susan Cain:

  1. Stop the madness for constant group work…just stop it!
  2. Go to the wilderness…be like Buddha…have your own revelations!
  3. Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there!

And have the courage to speak softly!