Why cross-cultural skills are essential for businesses to thrive

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Equipping employees with cross-cultural skills is essential for organisations operating in a global business environment – but why do so many get it wrong?

Our world is getting smaller and smaller each year as macro-trends make global travel and communication easier.

Increasingly, people live and work in foreign countries, a rapid rise evidenced by the latest UN figures, which estimate 258 million people now live in a country other than their country of birth — an increase of 49% since 2000.

The total number of expatriates worldwide has grown at a compound annual rate of 5.8% between 2013 and 2017 and is expected to reach 87.5 million by 2021.

The net result of this pattern is that countries and workplaces have changed forever. Employees are much more internationally mobile, virtual working is now the norm, and workplaces have consequently become more internationally diverse, increasing the need for global team building.

New horizons, new challenges

This provides both an opportunity and a challenge for international organisations. Businesses are increasingly looking outwards for growth, and globalisation and digital communication have given even small businesses access to and presence in the global market.

In this environment, employing people (or developing your staff) to speak the language and understand the culture of your international clients, prospects, partners and suppliers can deliver a significant competitive advantage.

Businesses are primarily looking to equip their people with the skills to adapt their working styles to individuals from a wide range of different cultures and countries.

However, working with people who have different mother tongues, communication styles and cultural norms can also be very difficult, whether they are potential clients, or colleagues sitting at the desk next to you.

Organisations need to overcome these difficulties and enable this melting pot of professionals to work effectively together and with those outside of the business.

It's not just about learning a language

Fluency in other languages is not enough. As employees meet with colleagues, negotiate with suppliers and partners and support their customers as a routine part of their daily work, the need for intercultural awareness is of paramount importance.

Organisations need a large talent pool with intercultural skills: awareness of cultural differences and nuances and effective strategies to communicate, build relationships, and develop trust in a globalised workplace.

Multinational companies are increasingly recognising the crucial role that cross-cultural competency plays in building a successful international organisation.

Our judgment, and therefore our instincts, are hindered by our own cultural perspective. Interculturally competent communicators are those who can take an additional fraction of a second to question their default responses.

In the past two years, Learnlight has seen a 40% increase in the number of global working skills programmes we have delivered, which help employees work more effectively with clients, suppliers or colleagues from different cultures.

The single most in-demand subject area is general cross-cultural skills rather than any country-specific programme, indicating that businesses are primarily looking to equip their people with the skills to adapt their working styles to individuals from a wide range of different cultures and countries, rather than specific ones.

How L&D professionals can improve the cross-cultural competency of employees

There are still too many organisations that are lagging behind in developing their staff to work in this changing world.

Far too often, businesses rely on learning a short list of do’s and don’ts, such as handing over a business card to a Japanese person with two hands, or not using humour when meeting with Germans.

Based on overly simplistic stereotypes, this approach is at best misleading, and at worst demonstrates a careless disregard for reality.

Relying on the stereotype that Germans don’t have a sense of humour, Americans are loud, and Italians are lazy can cause irreparable damage to an individual’s and organisation’s reputation and international success.

So how can L&D professionals improve the cross-cultural abilities of employees? Firstly, they must recognise what intercultural competence is. In simple terms, it is the combination of an awareness of difference and the ability to build collaborative environments across different cultures.

Interculturally fluent people are those who understand that others do not necessarily share their view of the world. Their default reactions and communication styles are not the same defaults other people have. They are then able to create trust and relationships by identifying cultural clues, recognising cultural influences and finding a mutually acceptable middle ground.

The most significant step people can take towards intercultural proficiency is to develop a healthy distrust of their instincts. We interpret verbal and non-verbal communication in milliseconds - we don’t stop to apply any filters and respond to the input.

Understanding cultural biases

Our judgment, and therefore our instincts, are hindered by our own cultural perspective. Interculturally competent communicators are those who can take an additional fraction of a second to question their default responses.

Here’s a very simple example: you’re sitting in an open office here, when a colleague nearby looks at you and says, “it’s very warm in here”. Your instinctive response is to nod, and agree politely, before getting back to work. Someone who is interculturally competent, however, will assess whether their warm colleague is from a more indirect culture, and is in fact asking them to turn the air conditioning on or open a window.

Psychologists state that a first impression is made in fewer than three seconds. Unfortunately, interculturalists suggest that the first impression is more often wrong than right.

Interested in this topic? You may also enjoy Why is cultural intelligence important?

About Benjamin Joseph

Benjamin Joseph

Benjamin Joseph is the CEO of Learnlight (www.learnlight.com), an EdTech company that provides language and skills training to some 1,000 organizations in more than 150 countries. Learnlight deploys its award-winning learning platform to deliver blended, face-to-face and digital training programs to over 100,000 learners each year.

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24th Oct 2018 21:42

Great article Benjamin, being able to communicate with other nationalities is a crucial skill for everyone in the work place.

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