Anais Nin says “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
This quote essentially reflects the extent to which our perceptions blind us from reality. Our perceptions create unconscious biases that often lead to conflicts; just like two people viewing the number 6 from two different ends. One sees a 6 while the other sees a 9 and both are right.
Likewise, when people from different cultures come together to do business, they view situations from their distinct cultural lens and this could lead to differences and perhaps loss of business. It’s a common occurrence because our interactions are based on the mental representations we carry of different cultures. Some commonalities make us believe that it’s easy to know and understand people, and this belief leads to misunderstandings impacting business and relationships.
What Culture Really Is
So, let’s take a deeper look at what culture really is and where does it come from. Can something as complex as ‘culture’ be truly defined? Hofstede defines culture as – ‘A collective programming of the mind which distinguishes a member of one group from another’. The distinction is based on the norms, values, attitudes, ways of communication, gender equality to name a few. These are reflected in the day to day lives that forms a cultural ethos. Thus, the cultural milieu in which we grow up gives shape to a perceived reality which then becomes the framework from which we largely operate.
Strategically Use Cultural Differences
It is well accepted and understood that countries differ when it comes to patterns of leadership, decision making and leveraging power of relationships. Recognising and appreciating these differences and adapting to them is key to building cultural competence through Cultural Intelligence. Simply put, Cultural intelligence is the ability to relate and work effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds and it goes beyond existing notions of cultural sensitivity and awareness. Those with cultural intelligence know how to strategically use cultural differences to come up with more innovative solutions.
Let me expand upon this with a real-life example. A group president of an MNC who had been handling South East Asia when handed over the responsibility of managing the rest of the world except the USA and Europe admitted to the fact that he was looking at the world through the lens of what he was familiar with. He envisioned challenges after the first meeting and hence voluntarily reached out to expand his understanding with the help of cross-cultural training and coaching. His key learnings (listed below) ranged from intense self-awareness to a layered understanding of how to be a global leader.
- Gained an understanding of how intercultural intelligence is about moving from a monocultural mindset to intercultural openness
- Grew curiosity to building empathy and unravelling cognitive complexity. A shift occurred from denial and avoidance to acceptance and adaptation
- Began to identify the unmet needs of his global colleagues and see how they think and operate to transcend cultural barriers to building a global business
- Immersed himself into the cultural nuances to build relationships with meaningful dialogue to drive business results
- Learned how to leverage his values across cultures to build harmonious partnerships
- Identified the drives that make systems work and what actions or words could potentially jeopardise business as well as his credibility
Turn Focus Inwards
Culture is what it is; it is up to us to shift our lens and manage our perceptions and biases to objectively see things the way they are. It is time more business leaders took note of the strong need to turn their focus inwards in order to sustain as well as add value and aid business growth. The need of the hour is to move beyond doing country orientation programs to developing cultural intelligence programs through training and coaching. This is a must-do or they risk being left out of the global dream.
The good news is we have a choice. We must be the change to transform our world.