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The Myth of Cross Cultural Awareness

Across the Board, November/December 2006
By Omar Khan

I’m a global consultant, who was born in Egypt, Pakistani by nationality, grew up in New York (which I consider “home”) and lived in Kuwait, the Netherlands, Japan, Sri Lanka and England (to name only a few of my homes over the years). You’d think I’d be a champion of the importance of cross-cultural awareness. I am and I’m not.
Of course, you should have some awareness of other cultures and mores, but it’s a myth that this is a requirement for conducting business globally, critical to forging relationships and indispensable to gaining trust. Let me explain.

Let’s first look at leaders who have communicated successfully across cultures and boundaries, affected us and left a powerful imprint on our collective consciousness. Think about Jack Welch, Akio Morita (of Sony), Carlos Ghosn (who engineered Nissan’s turnaround in Japan), Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew (of Singapore). Did they make a global impact by adapting their communication to multiple audiences or by mellowing the power of their primary passion? No, rather their message and example transcended both the limits of their cultures and those of many of their listeners.
People are more often led by those who jolt them awake, rather than those who placate and pander to them. I know that the leaders I mentioned were well aware of the many varieties of peoples and cultures they were engaging. They realized that leadership is first about authenticity, about finding your original voice. It is only second about adapting that voice to make inroads with others. If the content is valuable, if the sincerity to add value is genuine, people will stretch themselves to understand you and will gain more from extending themselves to do so than if you had adapted your message to their cultural “default setting.”

Famous books about cultural sensitivity highlight the many different habits and preferences that exist around the world. We are warned that many oriental cultures consider it rude if you don’t slurp your noodles and emit a contented belch at the end of the meal. We are warned that shaking hands with your left hand in many cultures is considered unclean. And, although it would be judged rude to thump a Japanese on the back, it would be wrong to be offended when receiving that same treatment from an Italian or a Greek.

It is important to understand cultural differences so that we don’t misunderstand others. But we should not begin to ape these things ourselves! Does anyone believe that you will be ultimately judged by whether or not you belch, or by which hand you break the camel meat off with in a traditional Bedouin dinner (right hand please)? People may be charmed when you know about their mores, when your aren’t cowardly about slamming back an iced vodka in Moscow, or appreciate truffles from Alba and know that Bellini was an artist (not just a drink made famous at Harry’s Bar in Venice), or enjoy your ballet as well as Bunraku (puppet theater in Japan) and know how to “win friends and influence people” in Sri Lanka or Pakistan by enthusiastically sharing your knowledge of cricket. But honestly, who really judges you for anything substantial on this basis?

Perhaps if two business rivals are absolutely indistinguishable, such “icing” might determine the outcome. But otherwise, don’t kid yourself. Getting to know your client or partner, understanding the market, offering powerful and distinctive value, being willing to be educated on what matters culturally to a specific person or group or segment (rather than being a generic expert), is how you get ahead locally or globally.

We have arrived at the problem that underlies giving an exaggerated importance to certain aspects of cultural sensitivity. Although we can accept that descriptions of what various cultures are like may be more true than not, they often blind you to looking at people with open minds, eyes, hearts Are all Americans outspoken and bombastic? Are all Japanese shy and retiring? Are all French people cultured and standoffish? Are all Indians, though enterprising, also, paradoxically, bureaucratic? Are all Latinos expressive and emotional? Of course not! More may be so in some cultures than in others, but remember to interact with real people, not with a mass phenomenon.
There is danger when cultures begin to believe too much of themselves and their own uniqueness. The Thais have a wonderful culture, awash in sophistication, aesthetics and depth. One of my Thai clients recently queried me as I was interacting with his team. “Don’t you find the Thais unique?” he said with considerable pride. I knew he felt that, even within the already unique Thais, his team was even more exceptional. His attitude was part of the problem. This talented team was blinding itself to areas for improvement and they were being diminished by the arrogance of their own leaders.

My answer wasn’t a model of sensitivity. I said, “No, I don’t find them unique.” He looked at me, initially shocked. I said, “I think you have a remarkable culture (which is true), and I am often in awe of the grace and focus of the Thai people (also true). But I find many treasures as well as challenges in all kinds of cultures around the world. First, we need to help your team face the challenges specific to your organizational culture. To achieve this we should, indeed, leverage the strengths of Thai culture, but we must also have the courage to transcend some of its limitations.” As I got more specific with him, he saw that my analysis came from real commitment to his team’s success and he relaxed and rallied. As a result, I believe he valued my counsel far more.

The second problem occurs when we project expectations on the people we meet based on general descriptions of them. As I’ve mentioned, sometimes the descriptions just miss the mark. Even when they are 70% accurate, would we not be able to observe most of these characteristics if we just paid attention? We need to stay attentive and open and let people teach us who they are (and be aware of that other often decisive 30% at the very least). An open mind is far better than when we try to shoehorn people into a “category” we’ve been told they should fit.

People will teach us how we can communicate with them if we will pace them. Pacing means to enter their world (situationally, behaviorally, in terms of responsiveness-based on how they are being that day) and bridge from there. It also means to invite them into our world, so that we are mutually enriched.

It can be argued that the GE-Honeywell merger failed at least partially because Jack Welch and his GE team did not pace the EU officials in Brussels. I’ve just argued against pandering. However, the absence of “pacing” can make us misfire. Pacing isn’t pandering; it is using real-time awareness, without altering the real message or the essential content. Welch’s arrival in private jets with a battery of lawyers seemed exactly like the pushy, overly magisterial American approach that the more sanguine and process-oriented EU officials found irritating and presumptuous. The doubts that EU officials already harbored were probably inflamed and exacerbated.

Pacing would have demonstrated after the first few encounters, that organizing a small dinner, or a series of quieter meetings, sincerely listening to fears and co-creating some additional safeguards proactively and willingly rather than reluctantly, would have been more powerful than a legally mounted “shock and awe” campaign.
Pacing works. What wouldn’t have worked is Jack Welch offering to drink Belgian beer and showing off his collection of Asterix comic books that were originally published in French.

Our decision as to how much to adapt and how much to challenge what we find has to be market-based and outcome-determined. I have worked with The Ritz-Carlton hotel group, who have won quality and productivity awards in Mexico. People initially assumed they wouldn’t be likely o succeed in the laid back culture of the Mexican locals. Instead of capitulating to this generalization, The Ritz-Carlton decided to draw on the warmth and hospitality they found there, while still aiming for their same “Gold Standards” of service and customer satisfaction. Delivered with Mexican flair, the hotel chain’s timeliness, efficiency and responsiveness are as strong in Mexico City as at say The Ritz-Carlton Seoul, where the Ritz demonstrated that Koreans could be as friendly as any other of the Ritz-Carlton’s “ladies and gentlemen” in more traditionally outgoing societies.

Realizing that friendliness is a universal, not a possession of a few cultures, the award-winning Changi airport in Singapore mounted a “smile campaign.” While many people thought the approach was artificial, it worked! It worked because it emphasized the natural friendliness of the Singaporeans, overcoming the perception of those from non-Chinese cultures that the islanders were taciturn.

Let me give another hotel example. Walk into The Four Seasons George V in Paris and you will experience not only the epitome of French sophistication but also the friendliest staff you can imagine- this in a city reputed for snooty and almost dismissive service. Leadership is about drawing out and creating what you are looking for, not just taking a local temperature reading and adjusting your vision accordingly. Of course you should accomplish this with sensitivity, but it should be human sensitivity far more than cultural sensitivity.

Let me expand my point with two other examples of people who travel all over the world being triumphantly themselves. Because they care about others and care about sharing value with them, they are welcomed by all kinds of cultures and people. One is the Dalai Lama. So many of us admire his quiet courage and radiant spirituality. We don’t expect him to tell loud stories in New York, sing Irish pub songs in Dublin, or know the intricacies of an aboriginal wedding. He is the Dalai Lama and he challenges our complacency and our conscience. He doesn’t judge us. He just expresses himself. He is a living bridge.

A very different example is a strategic ally of my firm, Tom Peters. Tom continues to be a hot brand in the management guru industry. He has relentlessly re-invented himself. Called both the “uber-guru” and a “professional loudmouth,” his mission is to “vivify management.” He shouts, exhorts, rants, ignites, and wants to make each speech a Cirque du Soleil type experience for his participants. No one wants Tom Peters to become more timid in Stockholm, more gentrified in London, more communal and less charismatic in Beijing. People come to experience Tom, a true original.

Again, the Dalai Lama and Tom Peters are well aware of the world around them. They aren’t lazy; they immerse themselves in other cultures and people. But they realize that the real purpose of global interaction, of global leadership, is to help change each other, not to just adapt to each other. They exemplify and showcase what is possible. So should you and I, for the benefit of everyone.

Forget the extreme intricacies of cross cultural awareness touted in the books I have mentioned. Go out and pace the people you encounter. Experience the cities and cultures of the world and see what they evoke in you. Bridge from what you perceive to your own experiences and share back, so the learning flows in both directions.
Remember that ultimately what we are hired for as consultants is to help people change their perceptions and live fresh possibility, not to reaffirm their current perceptions and paradigms. So wherever you leave the chopsticks, and whichever hand you use, challenge your clients and colleagues in valuable ways. That’s why we’re needed. Then, come through for them. In doing so, let them teach us what truly matters to them and to the situation so that the solutions and facilitation we offer can be as relevant and as meaningful as possible.
Good consulting, intelligent personhood, and insightful leadership applies everywhere, at home and abroad. Let’s go with that and keep the admittedly fascinating cultural generalities as the background elevator music they are in the continuum of true communication.