If people are not yet convinced to the idea of growing the cultural intelligence, they often discard the research and intercultural tools. They may say things like: “I get it, there are differences between China and the US, but aren’t there also differences within the countries?”, or “Yes, there are differences between regions and countries, but all individuals are different, so shouldn’t we be looking at every person separately instead of generalising?”.
These are valid questions, and I hope to shed some more light on the answers.
For many, the American colleague is just an American. And that’s fine.
As with anything to do with people, there is never only one suitable approach to management, leadership, team effectiveness, motivating. As much as people within the different countries have different preferences and personalities as well as life experiences, on the high level, societies clustered within one region or country actually are more homogenous than you would think.
The research consistently shows that there are statistically significant differences in the behaviours and values that people hold within certain societies, for example in China versus Poland or the UK.
If you grew up in the US, you are so experienced in the culture that the intra-cultural differences are very clear to you and they stand out more. For someone who has not lived in the US at all, the American person is “just” an American. For the purpose of managing the difference with their own cultural values, it is not necessarily as important to distinguish whether the person is a New Yorker, or southern American. It is enough if they know that they can expect people to get friendly quickly, being low context and that they will likely be expected to speak up and voice their opinions.
In a similar way, it is not crucial to distinguish between the differences across various regions of China, if you are not planning to immerse yourself in this market to that extent. It would be enough for you to notice that on average it takes longer to build trusting relationships in China than in the US, or that you may need to be more comfortable dealing with silence.
Cross-cultural competence comes from practicing new behaviours
Building cross-cultural competence is of course a bit about learning the specifics of research. But this is not enough. Actual competence comes from practicing new behaviours that you might not be that comfortable with at first, to enable to fulfill a bigger goal of effective cross-cultural working. It is about adding to your toolkit, so that you are more and more comfortable working with people who are different from yourself, be it within your own region or outside of it.
The important breakthrough that people experience when immersing themselves in intercultural learning is to realise that this has much broader implications than just working with people from different countries. Cultural competence goes beyond that. It is a set of capabilities that may help you work through other types of diversity as well, and build rapport with others. It is a useful perspective to have when you are a People Person in your organisation – be it a manager, team leader or a team member.
At one point in your career you will need to face working with people who have different ways of working. It may turn out that their ways are not consistent with the research about the ‘average’ Polish or American [or any other nationality] person. Don’t get attached to those descriptions too much. At that point, you can use your knowledge of cultural dimensions and your cultural sensitivity, to apply it in multiple situations, which include a degree of uncertainty or diversity. With time, you will be more and more fluent in determining whether something is cultural or not.
Cultural dimensions can help you explore a variety of perspectives, which you might not have considered before when working with your colleagues. A slight change in the methods you use in brainstorming sessions might generate more valuable ideas. It may be because you enabled more reflective and quieter people to express their opinions as well, which would otherwise remain unheard. Increasing effectiveness of working in diverse environments does not need to be about massive changes. Often just increasing your self-awareness and cultural sensitivity may bring you the desired results.