We already know that the technical expertise in a chosen field doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful assignment abroad. It is certainly one of the factors, but not the only one. You might be a great manager in your current location, understanding people’s needs, being able to respond in an adequate manner, knowing how things work here. But what would you do when you are uprooted to a new location where things aren’t as familiar?
Here is where cultural competence comes in handy. Like any competence, it can be developed, which means that if you put some work into it, you can increase its levels. This in turn will lead to building more fulfilling professional relationships, being a more effective leader and a bigger confidence when working in an international environment.
Think of cultural competence as a habit
Increasing cultural competence should be a habit that you incorporate into your daily life. Creating a habit is an action and it consists of three components in order to be sustainable – the desire, knowledge and skills.
The desire is what you want – understanding why you want to even create this particular habit and having a vision of what’s at the end of the journey. Knowledge is the essential facts that will help you figure out what actions to take and how, in order to make your habit a sustainable part of your life. And the skills are those strategies that you are trying out and acting upon.
Let’s say I work a lot with people from Malaysia. I’m usually rather direct and used to working in a fast-paced environment. I acknowledge that there are cultural differences around the world in how people prefer to interact and I want to prepare and be respectful of those differences.
That is my motivation. I want to practice dealing with silence and longer breaks between the two parties engaged in a conversation (Desire).
I want that because I know that it is more common in Malaysia and South East Asia region more widely to pause before responding. Jumping straight to the answer after someone has stopped talking or cutting in when someone else is still speaking may be considered rude (Knowledge).
So I come up with various exercises to practice being comfortable with that silence. I pause for 3 additional seconds before responding, I find a partner with whom I can do the exercises, I try and sit with my partner in silence for, say, 5 minutes and see how it feels (Skills).
The more you practice this behaviour and then notice how it plays out in a real-life scenario, the more you’ll start to get comfortable with different working styles.
Ideas for incorporating intercultural learning into your everyday routine
What is your hobby? Is it volleyball? How does the volleyball world look like in some other country you want to learn more about (or with which you do business most often)? What are some most famous names there? How do people support their teams? Or maybe you like watching films? What are some films by local directors you could watch? How is their style different from your home country’s?
What is it that you recently found ‘weird’ or ‘annoying’ when working with someone from a culture different than yours? How about you find out whether this may be related to some researched cultural differences? What in particular created those negative emotions in you? How does it impact your values? Is there a way you could adjust how you interact with that person so that you have a better working relationship?
What is one of your main strengths in your current cultural context? Is it public speaking and presentations? Is it selling? Is it being able to motivate people or building engaged teams? Now think about how you can master the same skill in a different cultural context. What new ability would you need to practice? What habits you’d need to change? What other strategies you’d need to try out to make sure you are equally effective?
Intercultural competence is not a stand-alone skill. It is highly linked to your everyday activities and the skills you already have. You already are a well-established professional with many strengths, I’m sure. We live in a world though where a single leadership strategy is no longer effective. You just have to be able to flex and understand different perspectives. Building your cultural competence can fast-track you to being more confident and effective when working internationally.
Adding a bit of cultural learning to your existing passions and strengths is the most effective way of doing that.