People may be working across cultures regardless of whether they’re travelling the world or working with colleagues remotely from one given location. And for that, the key thing you need are the “people skills” – that’s usually the first thing that comes to mind. To be a good international manager or HR/Talent professional you need to be a People person.
But is this enough? What does it exactly mean for you to have good ‘people skills’? Have you ever thought whether your people skills are culture-specific or culture-general? Where are you on your path of building cultural competence?
You may say that when working with people, you always approach them individually and so learning about cultural trends is irrelevant to you. But actually, many of the managers or team members do that individual approach through their own cultural lens. You might see and label someone as ‘struggling’ when they don’t speak up in meetings, or label them as incompetent, while in reality they are experiencing a way deeper values conflict, and therefore the usual coaching or feedback conversation will simply not work. Even though on the behavioural level it seems that all they would need to do is indeed ‘speak up more’.
Below you will find a set of other characteristics, which are a necessity if you want to work effectively across cultures. There is much more than solely communication skills that can help you build your confidence and competence in an international environment.
If you work with people from specific regions more than the others, it’s such an easy thing to do to learn few words in their local language. It can make such a difference even if you surprise your colleagues or clients with a simple hello or thank you. And yes, it may mean you learning those words in say four or five different languages.
I have seen this play out positively on many different occasions for myself. For example, someone really didn’t have to, but have googled how to say happy birthday in Polish and wrote it like that in a card, rather than in English. Or when they’ve written thank you in Polish at the end of the email. It shows engagement and awareness of the fact that it is a big part of me although I don’t live in my home country. It simply puts a smile on the face.
It also worked wonders on many of my tourist trips. The latest one was in Georgia, where the language is completely different from what I’ve ever learnt. I started with learning just two words – hello and thank you. The change in attitudes and friendliness of people was really big when you at least tried to use other words than English (which, by the way, did not seem to be enough outside of Tbilisi – Russian would be more useful in that part of the world).
Knowing foreign languages can be a real advantage, but the linguistic abilities are not all about that. It’s also about how you use English in the international environment. The reality is that many companies working across borders are using English as their business language. However, effective international leaders need to realise that the ways in which people use English language may differ across the world, and I don’t mean fluency here.
The attitudes and cultural values do shine through the words we say in English if it’s not our native language. When you search the internet there is plenty of research looking into how people’s brain waves change when speaking various languages, what syntax people use in the two languages if they are multilingual, how emotional or expressive the communication is in two languages.
At times, staying silent for a bit longer, or adapting the content of what you say in English can make a real impact on your business relationships.
Self-awareness and motivation
What we mean here is motivation in a wider sense, the drive, the purpose. Why are you working in this international environment? What keeps you there? What can you get out of this intercultural working?
Once you know whether it’s more the internal factors that give you joy or external, you can ensure you choose projects and interactions which boost that motivation, rather than acting without purpose. Internal motivating factors may include just really liking to meet new people from backgrounds different than yours, the readiness to experience difference and take various perspectives, the purpose you find in the international work you do. External factors may be more related to the benefits you find in the international work (you may not particularly like or crave interactions with non-similar people, but you do like overcoming challenges and learning new things), or wanting to be a good manager for which you know you need to open up and understand how management practices vary across the world.
Self-awareness of your own cultural values and how they influence your relationships is also very important. Take the time to stop and think what are your non-negotiables, what do you sometimes find odd about how other people do things. Those ‘odd’ things can tell you a lot about your own lens through which you see the world.
Knowledge of various leadership styles
So many leadership books these days are being written by the professionals and researchers from the so-called ‘Western’ world. In practice, that means a lot of this research comes from American universities. Although they provide so much insight into how people function in teams, how people build relationships or see the world, it is clear that more and more researchers see an added value in checking how their theories work in vastly different cultural contexts.
Knowledge on its own is not enough. You need the skills and awareness to use this knowledge in a way that adds value. But without knowledge of history, how things work in different places in the world, what leadership may mean for various people in various companies or countries, you won’t go far. While in some places working long hours can be a sign of commitment, in others those extra hours may indicate lack of efficiency or [wrongly] putting too much focus on the work life rather than family and personal time.
It is not as simple as using the same techniques but just miles away in a different setting. It is about growing your toolkit to be able to find the best approaches to work with international clients and colleagues, while still staying true to who you are.