As an executive search professional, my life straddles two continents- Europe and North America. There are many differences in day-to-day customs and practices between any two countries, even neighbours such as the USA and Canada or France and Germany. The more I interact with executives working away from their home countries, the more I realize the importance of people making adjustments to their views, habits and expectations to account for and adapt to cross-cultural differences. In this article, I list some tips that I draw from my own experiences and hope readers will find them useful as their own careers take them from one country to another.
Be Open Minded
Take the simple example of waiting in line. In the US or the UK, people would stand in a line without a second thought. But when I moved to Spain, I was struck by the absence of lines. It is common for people to just gather around the area and ask “¿quién es la última” (“who’s last in line”?). Initially, I must admit that I found this quite annoying (probably because my Spanish wasn’t great at the time). But over time, I got used to it and now, I think nothing of asking who’s last in line and wait accordingly. This example might sound trivial, but it underscores an important point- when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Things will be different in a new country, but if that’s the norm there, who are we as outsiders to pass judgement or criticize practices? It is far easier to accept that things are different, keep an open mind and adjust. Trust me, it will save a lot of frustration (and you will save money on antacids too!).
Learn the Language
Learning the local language should be another high-priority item on the “to-do lists” of expatriate managers. In multinational companies, English is often the lingua franca, and expatriates do not usually need the local language for work. But in every country, people appreciate efforts by foreigners to speak their language. They don’t expect fluency, and usually the very fact that you are making an effort to learn their language will endear you to them. Also, when you rely on interpreters or translators, what you may get is a filtered version limited by the interpreter’s proficiency, willingness to translate, biases and personal agenda.
Patience is held out as a great virtue. Adjusting to a new country and its culture is a prime example of where patience pays. Most of us are quite impatient when it comes to adjusting to a new environment; we expect to be on top of things in a day or two. But getting used to certain things in a new country can take much longer. The format in which dates are written is a simple but telling example of this. I must admit to having written my birthday as the 1st of May on many occasions before making the change. Do not put yourself under pressure to hit the ground running. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to settle into the new environment- but be aware that you need to work hard to settle in.
Talking about her own experiences of living and working in the US and Europe for over 20 years, Carole Rissmann, who was most recently VP Marketing at Beiersdorf USA, says in a podcast you can listen to on our website, “… every country has (its own) culture, background… so I would say be curious and ask questions. There is a lot to learn from people…. there’s never just one way of thinking or doing something…. and you’re better able to make a decision if you have multiple perspectives…. it has always been an eye-opener for me how much there is to learn from others- not just professionally, also personally.”
Other aspects of culture too permeate the workplace. For example, while the US is largely non-hierarchical, in many other countries people are respected for their age or experience. Someone who moves from a hierarchical to a non-hierarchical culture (or vice versa, for that matter), will find it tough unless they make a conscious choice to understand these differences and factor them into what constitutes appropriate behaviour. As Ms. Rissmann says in the same podcast, “acknowledging or recognizing [cultural] differences can help to move the business forward more quickly or in a different way”.
Another aspect that is likely to come to the fore is acceptance of diversity. In some countries, opinions are valued on the basis of merit, and not whose opinions they are; but in other countries, the views of senior leaders are considered sacrosanct. This might stifle creative thinking and force people to adhere to the tried and tested. So, when someone from a country where diversity of opinion is welcomed moves to a role in a country where it is not, s/he may wonder why nobody else is speaking up. It is easy to form judgement about the competency of individuals, but remember that sometimes, cultural shackles may be responsible. Of course, the reverse is also possible, with executives being affronted at the temerity of fresh graduates offering suggestions and nobody else viewing it as a breach of hierarchy or protocol.
A recent article in FT quotes researchers from a group of US universities who studied the effect of foreign postings on self-awareness reporting in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes journal that “No longer immersed in the values and norms that they take for granted, people are frequently faced with new situations that prompt them to reflect on the dissimilar values and norms of the foreign culture. Such recurrent reflections may strengthen self-concept clarity because they make people more confident in what they actually believe and, ultimately, who they really are”. (Source)
In addition to providing functional or key market experience to executives, cross-cultural stints strengthen an individual’s core leadership capabilities by making them more open-minded to change and adaptable. They become more willing to consider diverse views in order to make better decisions. Indeed, some decisions could be so radical that they elevate the company’s growth trajectory to an entirely new, higher level. But all this will not happen automatically. Every individual needs to be self-aware, mindful of how the new environment differs from “back home”, accept the differences for what they are, and factor them into the process of interacting with people and making decisions. And remember that organizations increasingly value self-aware people.