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How To Manage Cultural Differences That Come As A Surprise

By Debbie Nicol (1154 words)
Posted in International Management on February 14, 2013

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By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion"

One bright afternoon in downtown Bangkok, I ventured into a movie theater and experienced a tradition I had not experienced in any other country.  Prior to the show, all patrons were requested to stand in respect to a tribute to the living king and a celebration of his contributions.  Neither right nor wrong, just simply ‘what is’ in the land of smiles!  Whilst of course I respected the request, I also further explored it later asking questions.

 

It got me to thinking about the workplaces of our global village, and the roles of corporate expatriate leaders on international assignments.  By nature we can’t prepare for something we don’t know about, but we can develop an awareness that allows us to manage cultural surprises to our benefit, and to the benefit of our team.  Here are three questions every international manager should contemplate before being faced with cultural differences that come as a surprise.

 

1.  How Can I Be Prepared For The Unexpected?

2.  What Can My First Reaction Communicate To My Team?

3.  How Can An Enquiring Mind Impact Co-Learning And Teamwork?

 

 

How Can I Be Prepared For The Unexpected?

 

Preparation occurs before departing our homeland in most cases, with expatriate managers researching and sifting through mounds of Internet tips and reading collateral. Yet, is it really possible to prepare from a remote location in a way that will benefit you greatly?

 

Possibly yes, if you are lucky enough to know someone who has ‘been there, done that’.  Yet more likely it’s not always possible. To gain perspective here, I return to my early managerial days where I learnt the Indonesian language (apa kabar!) in preparation for my assignment.  Being a relatively easy language, I thought it would assist with my transition to the Indonesian way.  However, the reality was I had been ‘fed’ textbook language, with the daily conversational language being rather different.

 

Knowledge gained ‘on the ground’ and ‘from the source’ is most definitely the most valuable resource an expatriate can have – and can only truly be gained once immersed in the reality of daily life. 

 

Could a more appropriate alternative simply be to prepare an open mind for many ‘unexpected situations’?

 

 

What Can My First Reaction Communicate To My Team?

 

Response can communicate so much to others, and a natural response will ‘put itself on show’ when an unexpected situation appears!  When we have time on our sides however, we can mask our response, seemingly coming across as the way we ‘intend’, the way we want others to see us.  We are all human and we all do this at times, from when we meet the proposed mother-in-law for the first time, through to changing our approach at the local library.  Yet when we live in a masked world on a consistent basis, effectively planning how to ensure others don’t see what we really feel, we can experience stress and confusion, as it’s hard to be that which we are not by nature….especially when we are faced with surprise situations.

 

There was no time for me to mask my reaction in that movie theatre!  Before I knew it, ‘regal music and pictures’ were all around me and people were standing ‘at attention’.  I became the exception and very quickly reacted to ‘catch up’ with the others.  In addition, I sought answers from watching others – was the king coming to watch the movie, was it a must-do, and the list went on….

 

If that was a work environment, what would my first response communicate about me to my team – a positive curiosity, with a willingness to align and show appreciation of a local practice OR an annoyance that another ‘something’ was a reason of disruption to my on-going operation? 

 

 

How Can An Enquiring Mind Impact Co-Learning And Teamwork?

 

The moment the music was over and we were back firmly rooted in out seats, I was very quick to enquire – is the king coming?  Is this a special celebration or rather an everyday occurrence?  Within a moment, the situation was contextualized fully for me – I understood the what, when, where, why, how and who of the situation.  What more could I wish for from just one simple question.

 

By showing curiosity an amazing thing had happened. Not only was I gifted with the answers, but also I gained an army of supporters (fellow movie patrons) willing to assist me from the darkness of confusion to the light of reality.  Their pride shone through and the partnership between us all, albeit only for a few hours, was strong.

 

How could such a support team work for you in a new culture?  In what situations might you need to draw upon this support team to help you navigate unclear territory? What could be the result of navigating a new culture by yourself, without this support?

 

 

Unexpected events and situations will happen on a regular basis over the course of your international assignments, embedding themselves into your new life at the strangest of times.  The question remains: how do you leverage these for immediate and long-term gain for you and your team?

 

{#/pub/images/debbienicol.jpg}Written by Debbie NicolManaging Director, 'business en motion' 
With leadership workshops, strategic approaches to organizational development and change, executive coaching and public speaking engagements, Debbie’s USP is the ability to open minds of those around her. Offering both traditional and contemporary toolkits focused on story-telling as the impetus for self and corporate leadership change. Sectors span across Asia, Africa and specializing in Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

 

Do you have a management question for Debbie?  Post it in our International Management Community and she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert

 

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Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

Lost In translation: Survival Tips for International Managers

Branded Redundancies: win-win for all?

Training vs Change Management

Working With Other Cultures

3 Tips to Consider Before Taking International Assignments

 

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Comments (1)

Mark Herbert posted on: February 19, 2013

Great article! We often think of cultural differences as being geographic or ethnic, but as a consultant I have learned that every organization has a culture.
Understanding and respecting that culture is fundamental. It doesn't mean you have to accept and embrace it, but you do need to respect it and the context it brings.
Similarly as leaders we need to remember when we invite a new person to join our organization there are likely culture nuances we take for granted that they may be unaware of- build that into your on-boarding process.
The most important thing in my mind is suspend judgment until you understand context...

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