Today’s economy has gone global. More companies are doing business overseas, and technology has accelerated this trend. If you’re interested in a long-term career in management, you should expect to work with employees from different nationalities and cultures. Cross-cultural management, however, can’t simply be learned overnight, or from a manual. It takes experience, education and a commitment to succeed.
"As a manager in the 21st century you are increasingly going to work with or to manage people from other countries and therefore cultures," said Keith Niblett, assistant director of customized and international executive development programs in Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.
The challenge of cross-cultural management naturally increases as a company enters new markets, which can mean managing teams from different cultures who may not respond to supervision the same way Western workers might.
For instance, American employees may be more likely to seek opportunities for personal development and compensation, while Indian employees may respond better to the concepts of company prestige and loyalty, according to Dr. Karine Schomer, president of Change Management Consulting & Training LLC, a management firm based in the San Francisco area.
Nearly half the senior executives at global companies polled in a 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit study based on a worldwide poll of 572 top executives found that language barriers had disrupted international deals or contributed to financial losses, according to a May 2012 Wall Street Journal article. When employees speak different languages, the language barrier can become a difficult hurdle. It is vitally important that managers and employees are able to communicate company business, as well as their own needs.
Many companies have taken steps to adopt English as their official language, but the requirement has had some undesirable consequences. In certain instances, it led non-native English speakers to retreat, lose confidence or simply ignore the rule, the Wall Street Journal article said.
One basic step a manager dealing with language barriers can take is to reinforce communication. On conference calls, try to repeat what people have said in different way to ensure the understanding is clear. “Paraphrase and repeat back what they said to make sure you understand their question," wrote Brick Jackson of Measuring Management, an information site for workplace leaders. Measuring Management recommends that if you say something on a conference call, follow up with an email to the same effect to make sure everyone understands what was discussed and provides the opportunity to ask clarification questions if needed.
Also, avoid jokes and sarcasm in emails, as people may misinterpret attempts at humor. A difference in cultural backgrounds can make misinterpretation more likely.
These are just a few of the major challenges to managing a multi-cultural team, but there are many others. Every situation is different, and there’s no precise formula for cross-cultural management. To be a good manager, you must be willing to adopt a new skill set. Here, education is key. Education, plus time and experience, can result in cross-cultural competence.
A step in understanding other cultures is to first know your own motivations, management style, preferences and central work values. A tool to help uncover this information is the Spony Profiling Model or SPM, developed by Dr. Gilles Spony in the early 2000s.
Using a 250-item questionnaire, the SPM creates a management model sensitive to personality and cross-cultural differences that looks at your work values. Three colleagues fill out a second, shorter questionnaire about you that determine your communication styles.
The results not only provide an inventory of your motivations and preferences in 12 styles described by Spony, such networker, persuader, innovator, pioneer and humanist, but also can be compared to the styles of different cultures, MSU’s Niblett said during a lecture on cross-cultural management.
The Spony profile helps analyze your preferences, strengths, challenges and areas you will have to be flexible and adapt when managing people from different cultures, according to Niblett.
For example, someone from a Western culture working with people from China or India would have to increase skills in monitoring and tamp down the pioneering style typical in Western cultures.
Conversely, a manager from China working in a Western environment would have to make extra effort be more flexible toward pioneer and networker styles in order to adopt to western ways of working and increase networking.
This type of insight and cultural awareness is likely to be increasingly valuable to most leaders and managers as the world becomes more tightly knit, Niblett said.
Experience is Key
Once managers acquire the foundations of cross-cultural understanding, experience can help develop a deeper appreciation of different cultures, according to Kwiessential, a cultural training and translation service based in the U.K.
That experience and appreciation will bring the knowledge, awareness and sensitivity that lead to competence.
Experience can teach managers that the head of a team in a Tokyo boardroom will sit in the middle of the table, farthest from the door, or that in northern Asia, business cards are a sign of esteem and should be given respectfully with both hands, Kwiessential said.
According to Kwiessential, the basics provide a starting point for cross-cultural situations, while experience gained during negotiations and meeting people from different cultures allows managers to truly achieve cross-cultural competence.
Learning and cultivating cross cultural skills will continue as an essential part of success in international business. You have to be able to recognize miscommunication and correct mistakes when they happen.