I recently ran a series of cultural awareness training workshops at Warwick Business School on their full-time MBA programme. Several things were worthy of note during these programmes but two really stuck out:
- Everybody on the programme is incredibly keen and highly motivated. The delegates are all mid-career and have decided to take a sideways step in order to up-skill themselves. This is quite an astonishing financial commitment if you consider that they not only have to pay for the course and support themselves during the process, but they have also turned their back on a year or more of salary. You can, therefore, understand why they must be highly incentivised to make the most out of every step of the MBA journey.
- The cohort on these programmes is incredibly diverse by nationality. This year’s students apparently number about 120 and come from more than 40 countries. Even though there are multiple delegates from India, China and the UK, the overall group is incredibly diverse. I think I am right in saying that there were people in the sessions from every continent.
Of course, the fact that I had such a cosmopolitan audience was great for running cultural awareness training programmes as everybody had their own experiences to bring to the table. At one point in the sessions, I put the delegates into small groups to discuss their personal experiences of the challenges of carrying out cross border work – here is a cross-section of the issues raised in one of the four sessions:
- Direct communication across company hierarchy: We had delegates present from some very hierarchical cultures such as India and China and they expressed astonishment at how, in some cultures, colleagues feel free to speak openly and directly regardless of who is present at a meeting. In more hierarchical countries people are less likely to engage actively in a meeting if senior leaders are present unless they are asked to contribute on a specific topic – and they certainly wouldn’t disagree with a leader in an open meeting situation.
Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture CEO
- Factoring in religious sensitivities: There was quite a lot of discussion around whether or not religious sensitivities needed to be taken into consideration when working with certain cultures and, unsurprisingly, the Gulf region was mentioned repeatedly in these discussions. My view on this is that respect needs to be shown somewhat more overtly in certain countries than in others – and what definitely goes down badly is any sense of disdain towards a particular religion and the visual manifestations of that religion. You might not share a faith, but you should share a respect for other people’s beliefs. I have seen Western expats in the Gulf region being very disparaging about local religious customs and nothing is more likely to lose business when doing cross border work than that.
- Punctuality and deadlines: What started as a conversation about differing cultural attitudes to deadlines quickly moved on to issues around time zones and adherence to deadlines. I always ask business guys in the UK ‘Are we punctual for meetings in the UK?’ and the answer I usually get is that ‘we are relatively punctual…’ My repost to that is that being relatively punctual is like being slightly pregnant! You either are punctual or you are not. It is definitely true that some cultures view absolute punctuality as a measure of professionalism whereas other countries are more comfortable with a certain degree of latitude around (particularly) start times for meetings.
- Drinking cultures: There was a feeling that some cultures value going out in the evening with colleagues and clients for a good ‘drink’ and that in those cultures, it could be detrimental to the development of good business relations to refuse to take part in these ‘bonding sessions.’ It is definitely true that in countries as diverse as the UK, Japan, Australia and Nigeria drinking is commonplace after work. The question is what to do if you don’t drink alcohol? This can put people in a very difficult situation – might my business/career/relationship prospects be negatively impacted simply because I don’t want to go out drinking when involved in a cross border work project?
- Reading body language: Many years ago, I went on a negotiations skills training course and I remember them distinctly talking about the need to be aware of the body language being used by your counterparties. The trainer told us that although people were very good at covering their true intentions with words, they are generally very bad at being deceitful with their bodies. Therefore, if you can understand body language it gives a better insight into real motivations and aspirations. I’ve always thought that this was good advice – if you are negotiating with somebody from your own cultural background. It can, however, be very dangerous advice when negotiating across cultures because it is so difficult to understand other cultures’ body language. Lack of response in terms of body language in the UK or the US is seen as a sign of lack of interest whereas it means that somebody is actively listening in Japan.
- Gender issues: Attitudes to gender equality differ enormously around the world. Most countries have legislation in place to ensure gender equality in the workplace but not all countries are active in enforcing that legislation. Traditional attitudes to women in the workplace persist in many parts of Asia, Africa and even South America. And gender is only one issue that needs to be factored in – age is worthy of respect in many countries and nepotism is actively encouraged in others. Compliance regimes developed by many western organisations assume that all people share the same values and ethical approaches to issues such and gender equality, ageism and nepotism when in reality they don’t. How can you impose a global compliance regime in such a culturally complex world?
- Approach to meetings: It was agreed that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ meeting but rather that ‘good’ looks different in different countries. What one culture sees as a well-run, highly effective meeting another culture may see as chaos. The list of ways in which meetings can vary in tone and structure is almost endless but here are a few of the areas we looked at on the cultural awareness training course:
- Issues around timekeeping
- Attitudes to agendas – are they even a good idea?
- How much preparation should be done in advance of a meeting
- Who is expected or even allowed to speak in the meeting?
- How many people speak at the same time?
- Is it acceptable to interrupt in meetings?
- Who should take the notes – if anybody?
Unfortunately, we only had about three and a half hours to discuss these issues – and many more besides. The general agreement at the end of the sessions was that everybody needs to improve their level of cross cultural awareness with regard to the profound impact cultural differences can have when undertaking cross border work, but that awareness was not enough. People also need specific knowledge of specific country cultures. If you are working with colleagues, clients or other stakeholders in a different part of the world it is really important to find out where your similarities are in approach to key business issues and where your differences are – because the similarities are where the points of contact will be but the differences are where the key challenges are likely to be found.
Awareness combined with knowledge leads to cultural fluency and anybody working internationally needs to develop high levels of cultural awareness. Cultural awareness training can help develop the necessary levels of global dexterity needed in modern organisations.
About the author
CEO, Global Business Culture
Keith helps clients work smarter in global, virtual and hybrid landscapes through developing greater levels of cultural fluency, improving their abilities to work in global virtual teams and by helping them navigate the challenges of transitioning to a hybrid future.