International business is more complex than ever before. Success in every sector is now seen in global terms. Yet success in working with colleagues from different cultures is no easy goal. In order to connect, we have to communicate effectively and we can only do this in an atmosphere of mutual respect, understanding and trust. Cross-cultural training helps you understand the underlying cultural values that drive behaviour-you first understand your own cultural background and then other people's.
Its outcomes should be first to take the confusion out of cross-cultural encounters. For example, you arrive in Madrid for a business meeting. In your own working environment appointments are made and only changed in exceptional circumstances, and usually with plenty of notice. But when you arrive at your hotel in advance of the next day's meeting you find a note telling you the appointment has been rescheduled. From your perspective this is tantamount to an insult. You feel angry, frustrated, perhaps puzzled. But that's because you come from a typically 'monochronic' background. Spain is much more 'polychronic' and, while you are very time- conscious, punctual, schedule-orientated, many Spanish are easy-going about time, appointments and timetables. It's not an insult, simply a manifestation of a more relaxed view of these matters.
If you had understood this before doing business in Spain you would not have been thrown by this sudden change in the schedule.
As well as helping you to understand the differences in other people's behaviour and attitudes, it helps you to overcome perceived barriers. In the situation above, you could arrive at the postponed meeting in a hostile and unreceptive frame of mind. Your business meeting could already be jeopardized by your sense of having been insulted. But if you understand the different behaviour in relation to a different culture's values, you can simply enjoy the additional free time in Madrid and arrive at the meeting ready to thank your counterparts for the unexpected opportunity to do some sightseeing. No hostility, no barriers.
A further benefit of cross-cultural awareness is that it helps you to become more objective. When cross-cultural issues are unresolved, you risk taking the situation personally, as in the example above. But when you understand that different behaviour patterns are entirely normal in another environment, you can stand back and analyse the situation more effectively. Let's say you have been negotiating with Chinese counterparts and feel ready to close the deal. At the end of the meeting, the Chinese thank you for your contribution but say they will now go away to consider the agreement. If you don't understand the collectivist nature of the Chinese decision-making process, you could come away feeling that the negotiation had failed, you may take this as a personal failure. But if you understand the group-orientation of your Chinese counterparts, you will be able judge the negotiation in a clearer light. You will even be able to offer additional input by expressing your willingness to supply further information to the group if they need it.
Team-cohesion is another area that benefits from cross-cultural understanding. Obviously it will be pointless if you as an individual understand these nuances but the rest of your team does not. When you return from a mission such as that described above, they too will think the negotiation has failed unless they understand the issues. As a team you will be able to develop more coherent and effective strategies if you all know what is involved in doing business across cultures.
Cross-cultural training will help you improve your communications skills. You will learn how to listen with real understanding. That means listening with your eyes and your mind as well as with your ears. Let's say you, a man, invite a female secretary from the office for a coffee after work so that you can get to know each other in a more relaxed atmosphere. She looks down at the floor, thanks you and says she'll come. You wait in the caf? but she doesn't turn up. If you had been listening properly this should be no surprise. She didn't look you in the eye and you ought to know that in her culture it is not usual for a woman to meet a man who is not her husband, father or brother alone but, at the same time, she would have found it impossible to openly refuse an invitation from her boss. As you learn to listen and understand you will develop the communication skills you need to deal sensitively but effectively with your international colleagues.
Cross-cultural training helps you understand how to prepare the ground for mutual understanding by helping you win the trust of those you work with. When people can see that you are sensitive to their beliefs and traditions and respect them, they will be more willing to look at new ways of doing things and finding mutually acceptable solutions.
Brenda Townsend Hall is writer and trainer in the field of business communications and cross-cultural awareness. She is an associate member of ITAP International (http://www.itapintl.com)