Intercultural Training Toolkit: Understanding the connection between cultural values and assignment success

In the first article of this series we explored the importance of focusing on self-awareness in the intercultural training room. This time we’ll look at the next building block – understanding culture and applying a cultural lens to work situations.

We know that the employees sent on international assignments are those that you can least afford to lose. They are the high performers or those with critical skills and knowledge. All too often cultural confusion can compromise performance and the signs may not be as obvious as an early return from assignment. They may present themselves as reduced motivation and loyalty to the company, or not achieving assignment objectives and goals.

Our Intercultural Training Program supports the employee (and their partner) in creating strategies to be as successful in their host location as they were in their home location.

Let’s take a deeper look …

Once we have built that foundation of awareness around the employee’s beliefs, behaviors and assumptions our focus shifts towards the host culture – and how it shows up in the workplace as well as day-to-day interactions. This doesn’t mean that self-awareness is put aside. It is a powerful tool used throughout training.

So what does this focus look like? An easy way to look at it is to think of the new culture as an iceberg with three components:


1) Surface level of cultural norms (the what – a.k.a. do’s and don’ts)

Just like an iceberg, the surface level is what we tend to notice when interacting with another culture. As a result the focus can often be on cultural faux pas and knowing the necessary “do’s and don’ts.”

The desire to be well versed in the “do’s and don’ts” of a new culture is a very human one. We all look to have rules around what is expected of us; even more so on assignment when employees, their partners and their families are immersed in ambiguity and unknowns.

“Do’s and don’ts” give the employee some simple rules to follow as a starting point when interacting with another culture. For example, it is certainly helpful to know that when living in Germany, do err on the side of formality initially. Do not jump to first names as this might be seen as too familiar. Or when working in Japan, do not openly display your emotions. Avoid physical contact and try to restrain your body language.

These rules are very helpful to know and certainly important, but do not give the employee a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the norm – nor do they fully take into consideration our increasingly complex global workplace. For example, the employee might notice that German colleagues are using first names and call another employee by their first name right away. And in the Japanese example, the employee might have a few colleagues who seem to be quite effusive when they interact. This is why the next component is so important.


2) Deeper level of value preferences (the why)

Looking at our cultural iceberg, we only need to dive beyond the surface to notice that the bulk of culture is actually a bit hidden. It is this hidden, deeper level that gets employees beyond the “rules” of cultural norms. It helps them understand what values and beliefs are driving and shaping the behavior they encounter. The ability to create a road-map of business practices in the host country is the foundation for your employees being able to adapt successfully.

An employee working in Mexico has noticed that emails from Mexican colleagues often seem wordy, indirect and formal. By going deeper the employee can learn that Mexicans require more context when communicating. And also, indirectness and formality show respect and politeness – important values in the Mexican culture.

In our intercultural training room we work with employees to identify their own value preferences and compare them to those of the new culture.

A few examples of key value preferences explored are:

  • Communication: do you prefer direct or indirect communication? Do you prefer formal or informal communication? What about the other culture or person?
  • Task completion: when working with someone else do you prefer to be task-focused or tap into the strength of the relationship to get the job done? And again, what about the other culture or person?

The employee in Mexico can quickly identify their own preference when it comes to communication and task completion, and understand the general Mexican preference. Also, and this is the true strength of value preferences, the employee can now look at Mexican colleagues and clients they interact with to begin to assess what their preferences might be. This brings us to the third component.


3) The assignment’s greater environment (personal and professional specifics)

Going back to our iceberg analogy one final time, not only is it important to consider the surface and depths of the iceberg but also the environment it is in. In other words, when working with another culture employees must consider the specifics of their situation and the people they are interacting with. Today more than ever, relocating employees find themselves in multicultural and diverse workplaces. Often their roles have regional components. And as a result, employees need to consider each person and situation as unique and “new.”

By understanding the range of value preferences and their own value preferences, employees have the freedom and flexibility to go into each cultural interaction with curiosity and shift their behavior based on what they are perceiving.

For example, an employee in the U.S. might realize in an interaction with a colleague that they are using indirect communication, while their colleague’s replies are quite direct and even showing some frustration. Based on this the employee in the U.S. might assess a gap in communication preferences and shift their style to a more direct one.

Is it guaranteed that the employee is correct? No, of course not. And if they are correct, is it guaranteed they can shift their style enough? No. It is, though, a tangible tool that the employee can use in the moment to adjust and learn what works for them and the other person. And maybe they will even bring culture and personal preferences into the conversation. Sharing their preference for more indirect communication could open the door to dialogue and decrease miscommunication.

At this point in the program, we have worked to build self-awareness and target cultural awareness with a view to identifying potential strengths and challenges. The training has given your employee a framework and lexicon to identify and articulate cultural issues.

Our next article will apply the knowledge and newly formed skills to create the potential for a highly successful personal and professional adaptation – and what you as HR professionals can do to capitalize on and enhance the process.

For more information on how you can upskill your people to improve their focus and performance on assignment, visit Global Skills or contact Jo Danehl.

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