By Françoise Falisse
Cultural adjustment goes through different phases and is not a taken for granted reality. External and internal reasons motivate the executives abroad to adapt to cultural change.
Narrowing Distances Do not Lessen Cultural Communication Challenges
Nowadays crossing a continent does not take you more than a half a day, which can give some executives false impressions that the world is becoming a big business market where you can easily reach people from another culture as long as you can communicate properly in English or in the language of the prospect.
Using a common language does not reduce the cultural gap, on the contrary sometimes. When the common business language used in business communication is a foreign language for one or for both business partners (and even if both partners speak their mother language), they need to make sure every partner has understood the same message.
In other words both partners have to check that they both give the same meaning to the same words, which can be far from being obvious because the modes of communication largely differ from one culture to the other.
Among other factors, some use a more direct style, as in Nigeria whereas their close
neighbours, the Benin people, for instance, prefer a more indirect style, both however using high context communication style where their words refer to a cultural context often hard for
foreigners to perceive at first glance. Formal-informal, factual-emotional, verbal and non verbal communication also largely impact the way we communicate.
The colour of your skin or your ethnic origin can also convey wrong information about your culture and assimilating all the people of the same continent is an easy amalgam often unwillingly made from people outside the continent.
A young West-European executive from African origin I recently
coached wanted to improve the poor quality of her working relationships with her local West-African boss and
team. She had realized that misleading perceptions from both her European headquarters and local managers had led them to anticipate wrongly how she could adjust in an African
living and working environment while she had perceived it as a totally foreign context.
She got professionally trained. My working and living experience of nine years in Africa helped her develop cultural consciousness about this country and create trust with her team. She then became much more comfortable with interacting with people of another culture. This resulted in her connecting faster the local issues with the targets and deadlines fixed by her European headquarter. This training also highlighted her challenges in a new foreign working environment.
International Experience can be Misleading
I quite often notice that both HR managers and some senior executives with international exposure misconsider to get trained on cross-cultural communication for time and cost reasons and they claim that they already gained enough experience abroad taking for granted they should be able to adapt easily to a new culture.
However their ability to adjust to some countries on which they built up their international experience does not necessarily mean they could be agile everywhere. More senior staff could for instance work on more strategic issues such as how to help their company integrate change and deal with complexity.
I have known a Finance Manager for some time and I know he has been widely exposed to working and living in Africa. A couple of years ago, his former company sent him to Morocco as a Resident Finance Manager without any cultural training beforehand because the HR manager was not aware of the need assuming he was already accustomed to working overseas.
Their mindset was to drop expats in unfamiliar environments and expect the bravest and the most inventive could be strong enough to get by and show the best adaptability.
He quickly realised that his former behavioral adjustment which he had acquired from his previous jobs in black Africa resulted in awkward interactions with his Moroccan staff. His unadjusted attitude quickly deteriated the working atmosphere which consequently hampered his objectives, cut the team’s motivation and delayed the delivery of results to headquarters.
A good solution for him would have been a customized personal and cultural development program in the form of individual coaching sessions beforehand and even on the working place to help him better understand Moroccan culture, point major cultural differences with the black African countries he had worked in before and assist him in adapting his communication and management style to behave efficiently with his Morrocan staff.
Personal aspects also need to be included in the process of developing cross-cultural agility. Not everyone feels good in the same working environment and adapts the same way even more more so when executives have to work in a foreign country.
What are the executive’s preferences in terms of behavior and what is his/her system of values ?
More specifically for expatriates before or when starting a new assignement, the screening of external and internal factors can help determine the expatriate’s preferences for language of work, eating habits, climate where he/she feels comfortable, developed or developing countries, a taste for a particular continent or type of landscapes, personal needs for socialization, … and many other factors as well as his/her global open-mindedness for change and risk taking.
Adjustments Take Time
My own experience overseas convinced me that adaptation process to another cultural environment takes time because it is a trip with constant back and forth.
On the pile side of the part one can consider that the greater the cultural distance between the executive and his/her local team and management the more effort (and probably time) it will take to communicate effectively with them. The face side of the part shows the ability of some executives to harmoniously work with culturally distant teams proving that knowledgeable executives about cultural differences can adapt their own behaviours to communicate efficiently with their local teams and partners.
Maintaining Confidence while Leaving your Comfort Zone
As we are working globally, the need for adjustment to another culture has become a necessity more than a choice.
Far from being easy, it requires an open mindset to change and a readiness to unfamiliar situations bringing its lot of discomfort specially when it comes to high-level negotiations.
A Managing Director of a new African branch that his company had recently opened confirmed how his cultural training had first helped him put his European vision of
African culture into perspective but also how he could then adapt his speech and non verbal communication to increase his chance to enter the local business arena. Cultural coaching can also help
decode local rituals, such as the way you shake hands can leave a first and sometimes final impression to your partner.
Respecting and being respected are certainly key values to most cultures as it is at the center of our human condition. Empowering executives to leverage their cultural skills does not aim to make them more powerful over others but can certainly contribute to develop their business in nuances and evolve in the complex working environment of our 21st century.