Have you ever dreamed of working abroad or in an international organization? Are you planning to? You’ve got the qualifications, the right motivation, skills and functional experience. But,, do you also have the knowledge and right mindset to communicate, build relationships and perform your work in a multicultural environment?
I’ve had the pleasures and challenges of managing culturally diverse teams in Asia and Europe, and working with peers in the internet industry from different continents. What I discovered was that despite that we’re working for the same company, in the same department, and even in the same team, communication patterns differ in various magnitudes and can cause misunderstandings, personal conflict and eventually ineffectiveness at work.
The differences in communication patterns lie in the many cultures we are made of: national, group, and personal levels. I am Filipino, a Christian and still evolving spiritually, but I’ve also been shaped by how I was parented and the friends I hung out with in high school and university. I studied in a radical state university and since the beginning of my professional life, have worked with internet professionals in American, British and Dutch companies. Next to these, I’ve also lived in 3 countries to date which allowed me to interact with expats and professionals from all parts of the world. Certainly, all of these affinities and relationships have affected my pattern of thinking, way of communicating and doing. But, how aware are we really of the cultures that we are made of? How aware are we of how these interplay with our interactions?
In all of us, there’s a ‘voice dialogue’ (by Hal and Sidra Stone) where because of the cultures that we have in us, we have two selves: the ‘primary’ and ‘disowned’ selves. Because I am Filipino, my primary self would be ‘timid’ and ‘accommodating’ in groups. In contrast, the Dutch would have ‘assertive’ and ‘individualistic selves. Within our ‘normal’ environment, our ‘primary’ selves are more dominant. However, in certain situations, our ‘disowned’ selves come to surface. Imagine how many ‘selves’ are at play when working with various cultures! These ‘selves’ are what guide us in determining what appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is. But these same guide become relative when we start to interact outside of our culture.
So how do we manage such a challenge? We take small steps by starting with our mindset and approach. Be an OHC.
Be willing to consider communicating an idea differently. Similarly, be willing to receive an idea or information in a different way. It is important how a message is delivered and it’s equally important how you receive it. Where will you focus on? How will you react?
Be open to both direct and indirect styles of communication. And of equal importance, explore and practice both styles. When you do, you can reach a more diverse audience, influence more stakeholders and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.
In the same light, be willing to build relationships differently. In working environments, there are two ways of building relationships: task-based and relationship-based (Meyer, E. The Culture Map). Do you start with chit chat or do you go straight to the task? Do you propose business in a meeting room or after a long evening of dinner and drinks? Be open to the possibility that some relationships are built in different environments and at difference paces.
Our individual ways of doing is not the universal way. We don’t always know the way. When faced with uncertainty, we need to voice our hesitation or confusion if we have.
Another way to be honest is to put expectations out in the open. If you work in a very task-oriented and organized way, communicate it and explain what expectations come with it. Similarly, if you are expected to work differently, communicate that it will take you sometime to adapt. Furthermore, communicate your working style and how this may impact work.
Honesty in working with other cultures is in a sense practicing vulnerability. We acknowledge that we are working in a new environment and therefore need some time, energy and knowledge to adapt.
Finally, be interested. Ask yourself, ‘What do I need to know about the national culture/s of my colleagues/team? Or the group culture in my organization? Or the personal culture of my manager/peers/direct report?
Investigate in yourself what resistance you are experiencing when you’re expected to act and think differently. Afterwards, develop an understanding of conflicting values that you may have with others’ culture. Finally, find out what small changes you can do or behaviour you need to adapt in order to achieve harmonious and optimal relationship with others.
It is very much possible to be able to switch quickly from our ‘primary’ selves to our ‘disowned’ selves and vice versa when we are armed with the right mindset. By embracing an OHC mindset and putting it into practice, you prepare to succeed in very multicultural environments and lessen your own personal conflict. By being an OHC you set the foundation for being an ultimately culturally flexible professional. So be one and before you know it your culture backpack is filled with different styles of communication, building relationships and working in an international environment.