Eight Tips for Working More Effectively Across Borders

Whether you live and work outside your own country, spend much of your time traveling on business or rarely leave your desk in your job, chances are you often find yourself interacting with people from cultural backgrounds different from your own. And this will only become more the case in the years to come.

Here are eight tips to help you work more effectively with colleagues and business partners from other cultural backgrounds:

The perception of difference can have a bigger impact than the actual difference.   When a manager from Venezuela does business with a client from Vietnam, both expect to encounter very different ways of thinking, communicating and behaving. The cultural difference is large - but it is not a surprise. When the same Venezuelan manager does business with a Colombian - or a German with an Austrian, or a Canadian with an Australian - the many common areas of culture and language can lead one to expect a straightforward interaction. But, while the cultural differences may seem small, underestimating them can - and frequently does - backfire. Smart business people proceed with caution when dealing with cultures apparently similar to their own. Taking things slowly is wiser - and less painful - than discovering later that you have less in common than you assumed.

Sometimes intercultural misunderstandings are not about culture at all.   In your own culture, there are some people you find easy to work with, others who are difficult to work with, and a few who are almost impossible to work with. All cultures allow room for individual identity within the limits of cultural norms. Often, when you find it most difficult to work with someone from another culture, the problem is mainly about individual difference rather than culture. Whatever tools you have learned for dealing with different types of individuals in your own culture (MBTI, Social Styles and DiSC are a few examples), these same personality differences exist in other cultures as well. Sometimes the most effective approach to culture can be to simply put it aside - and focus on applying the same tools and skills for bridging individual differences that you already use in your own culture.

Behaviour by those in other cultures is not always acceptable in terms of their own culture.   A German manager who had worked for three years in the Swedish subsidiary of his company had continuous difficulty with one of his Swedish team members. In spite of flexibility and tolerance, he could not find a way to work effectively with this individual. During a conversation in the canteen with several Swedish colleagues, he was surprised to here them say that they found this individual's behaviour quite unacceptable in the context of their own culture. We know instinctively when someone's behaviour in our own culture is outside the norms. The same situation occurs in other cultures as well; it's simply difficult for you as an outsider to know it. One solution is building relationships with colleagues from that culture and using them as resources to know when the behaviour of a person from that culture is appropriate and when it is not.

The most effective global managers are not without stereotypes; they are simply aware of their stereotypes.   Many people recognize the damaging effects of stereotypes and attempt to avoid them. A basic understanding of the way the human mind works tells us that this is not possible. One of the mind's learning tools is the ability to categorize. When a child touches a hot stove, the normal reaction is to beware of all stoves in the future, since they could be hot, too. It's hard to imagine anyone saying to themselves, "Well, I was just burned by this stove, but I wouldn't want to stereotype all stoves just because this one burned me, so I'll touch the next one just as if I had never had this experience." Business people who work most effectively across cultural boundaries are those who recognize that stereotypes are an unavoidable consequence of the way we learn and generalize. But they also recognize that they do not have to act on stereotypes. They are aware of the existence of stereotypes, and they are also able to manage their behaviour without letting it be driven by stereotypes which they pretend not to have.

Culture learning can be outside-in as well as inside-out.   Some people prefer to gather information about another country or cultural group they will be dealing with by reading, talking or otherwise sharing the experiences of others who are knowledgeable about this culture. Others prefer to simply jump in and get to know the people they work with from other cultural groups on a more personal basis. Over time, they extrapolate from these individual relationships to form a more global picture of the culture.

Either of these approaches is a valid way to build effective working relationships with business partners from other cultures. The former approach (outside-in learning) is quicker but has the disadvantage of containing many impersonal generalizations (and perhaps stereotypes) which must be continually refined to reflect the experience of actual business interactions. The latter approach (inside-out) has the great advantage of focusing on your actual business partners and relationships. But it takes a great deal of time to learn to understand and work effectively with business partners from other cultural backgrounds. When used in tandem, outside-in and inside-out approaches form a powerful culture learning tool.

Showing interest is helpful; showing off is not.   Some individuals are good at putting individuals from other cultural backgrounds at ease by asking questions to learn more about their culture. Others talk about their previous encounters with the other's culture and seem to be lecturing the other person on their own culture! "Showing interest" is a simple way to learn more about the other's culture while developing a relationship. "Showing off" is more likely to damage a relationship, and there is no potential for learning. "Showing off" usually consists of many statements and few questions. "Showing interest" consists of occasional statements and many questions. Of course, you may have to do some advance research to frame appropriate questions about another's culture. And it's all a waste of time if you don't listen to and remember the responses!

Personal interests and hobbies can be a window into another culture.   You are more likely to be interested in your business partner's cultural background if you have a reason to be interested in that culture. You can encourage this interest in yourself by finding connections to that culture through your own hobbies and interests. Examples include sports, hobbies, movies, music, novels - anything you enjoy in your own culture. These rewarding activities can provide a window into another culture. They also provide helpful conversation starters for building relationships and showing interest in the other person's culture.

Trying to avoid cultural mistakes can prevent cultural learning.   Some people tread carefully in an attempt to avoid unintentional mishaps in another culture. Others put such concerns aside and risk being seen as the proverbial "bull in the china shop". Neither approach contributes to building productive business relationships across cultural boundaries.

It is inevitable that, as an outsider, you will sometimes unwittingly cross limits and do or say things in another culture that produce an outcome very different from the one you want. The only way to avoid this is to do nothing at all - an approach that would produce no results whatsoever. But mindlessly ignoring the norms and expectations of another culture is also unhelpful and counterproductive. It is not possible to avoid committing faux pas in other cultures, but is possible to recover with good humour and to learn from the experience. The most effective international business people not only do this - they also discover the paradox that relationships actually become stronger after recovering from cultural blunders than if the blunder had never occurred in the first place!

Learning to work effectively with people from other cultures requires effort and time. As globalization continues to intensify, this ability is becoming a core requirement for more and more jobs - even those that don't involve leaving your own country. But the biggest payoff may be that learning to understand other c

It…seems probable that the most creative thinking occurs at the meeting places of disciplines. At the center of any tradition, it is easy to become blind to alternatives. At the edges, where lines are blurred, it is easier to imagine that the world might be different. Vision sometimes arises from confusion.
Mary Catherine Bateson
Composing a Life