You say tom-ay-toe, we say…
Are cultural differences across the globe a problem? Do they stop global Learning or Organisation Development programmes from working?
We often get asked about training for people working across cultures: “Can you give me guidance on how to work with our teams in Latin America? I’m going to China for work, what advice can you give me?
And having been asked these questions for so many years, even though we’re not experts on cultural differences – we’ve tried to be as helpful as possible. We’ve always said “that’s not our area of expertise, but here’s a suggestion you could try…” But does our advice work?
So having spent the past few weeks working with people from the UK, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, China, The Philippines, The US and Australia, we’re pretty chuffed to report back – yes, it works!
The key learning point for us (with this and in most of life) is simply… to not make assumptions
Or rather to question the assumptions we immediately make. When a delegate highlights that “this approach won’t work in x location”, we have simply asked what makes them think that and what might make it work better.
And when we introduce an idea that we know works well in the UK, we ask, “how might that work for you? What challenges might you face with this in your workplace? How could you make this work better for you?”
These are the same questions we ask regardless of cultural differences, and they work because they put the ownership on the individual to explain the cultural challenges and importantly, explore how to overcome them.
Why does this approach work?
It is worth remembering that our brains crave control: we do not like uncertainty or a feeling that we are not controlling a situation. So going to work in a different culture, where our usual patterns of working and set expectations of how conversations go are challenged, can be very uncomfortable.
So we try to control the situation by coming up with theories and ideas on how to adapt and fit. The problem is that our theories will be based on our culture and assumptions, so can often miss the mark. Asking another person, “how do you think this could work here?” Or “how can we adapt this idea so it works?” Brings multiple benefits.
– you gain insight from someone who knows the culture better than you
– that person feels valued and appreciates that you want their opinion
– you make the process collaborative, building trust and helping you better understand the culture
– you avoid making inappropriate assumptions that backfire
So here’s our suggestion, stop worrying about what difference culture might make and simply ask the question.