What is the first thing that would come to your mind if you were confirmed to do a project abroad?
For many people it would be booking flights and accommodation, sorting out visas if necessary, perhaps doing some vaccinations too. It could also be learning more about the client’s company and results to-date, or maybe planning some sightseeing activity if the time allows. And it’s all absolutely necessary of course.
But this article and this blog is not about those logistics. It’s about you increasing your cultural competence so that you can build better relationships, be more confident when working internationally and moving around the world.
Prepare yourself mentally
Many assignments abroad fail. Not because of the lack of knowledge or experience brought by people who work on those projects, but because this knowledge and experience was built in a different cultural context which is no longer relevant.
Many employers these days have various leadership programmes teaching young leaders like yourself how to be a good manager, a powerful leader and a great professional. In the ‘western’ world there’s a lot of pressure to achieve things and be successful. The thing that may be lacking in many of those programmes is expanding the lens through which we look at leadership. Being ‘a good manager’ may not mean the same thing in the US and in India. And that is when a successful American manager who gets the opportunity to lead a project in India might fail, if not prepared properly for the experience.
Whether you are a manager or a specialist, if you are working internationally (based in one country) or travelling across cultures, what you need is cultural competence. Cultural competence is a continuous learning journey which helps you understand what drives you and your behaviours, choose the right pieces of knowledge to become more effective and to expand the portfolio of strategies you may have available when encountering unfamiliar situations in the new cultural context.
If you are taking a new project abroad, you need to be prepared mentally for the fact that many things will be unfamiliar, that it may be emotionally draining at first, that you need to adopt a learning mindset in order to adapt and feel more confident. To do that, you can connect with your coach or do some inner work by yourself before boarding the plane. It’s usually easier though if you have an accountability partner to lean on! 😉
Research available cultural knowledge about the region
You don’t need to know everything about every single country or culture in the world. Really. You can start your learning journey with the cultures you are currently working with most often, or the one you are about to start working with.
Reading about the dos and don’ts can be a good start for many people, but in my experience is not always that effective in terms of long-term relationship building. What you can do instead is spending some time reading the cross-cultural research. You can start here: Cultural Map: Summary and applications!
Learn about cultural dimensions, what are the various spectrums of values and behaviours, how they interact with each other and how they may affect business relationships. Although it may seem like it’s more work, when you have those knowledge foundations you will see how quickly you can then analyse various interactions to see if there’s something culturally motivated in them or not, and expand your own intercultural communication skills.
Learn about yourself
The last but not least of things to have in mind is to learn more about yourself and your own values. You see, you can stop at the point above and read a lot about how things work someplace else. But it is all relative.
If you don’t know where you are on a given cultural values spectrum versus what you read about the given cultural group, how will you know what to do to adapt?
Let me give you an example. It generalises a bit of course, just for the purpose of illustrating the point. However, as much as we like to think that we are different from the others, the research shows many statistically significant distinctions between societies in different countries around the world, so we shouldn’t completely discard it. So, for example, if you come from China, you might say that the British are direct in their communications, that they say things as they are. But if you are American, you may perceive the British communication style as more indirect than what you’re used to because of the qualifiers which are so frequently used by people here to soften the message.
For example, Would you mind possibly closing the window, please? or It was quite crowded, actually versus the more direct Could you close the window? and It was packed). For the Chinese, it might feel softened indeed, but it’s still pretty direct and less context-dependent (versus what might have been a It’s cold, isn’t it [+ the unsaid: “so would be good if you closed the window”] or I feel a bit tired after the weekend [because of the crowded shopping mall I went to]).
If you’re working in a diverse team especially when taking up a project abroad in an unfamiliar context, be aware that the same person might be perceived by different team members as either too direct or too indirect. Same with the manager – too soft or too patronising, too indecisive/inclusive, too directive. Is either one of those right or wrong? Not at all. It simply shows that we all filter the situations and others’ behaviours through our own cultural lens. And international managers have a difficult task in front of them to find the happy middle in which they still feel themselves, but also cater for the needs of their various team members.
We need to understand what our own lens are, and learn about other potential existing perspectives to give ourselves a chance of building strong working relationships with people from different backgrounds. Cultural learning can help you explore a variety of perspectives, which you might not have considered before when working with your colleagues.