With more U.S. firms reaching across borders to increase their market share, business leaders are increasingly called upon to improve their cultural awareness. A lack of cultural knowledge can limit a company’s ability to develop its international business. Managers and leaders with the training and skills to work effectively with a diverse group of employees and partners – internally and externally – may find themselves in greater demand.
In seeking to develop an advanced level of cultural awareness, there are several key factors to consider, including:
- Communication: This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing leaders in the international business environment. Outstanding communication skills are valuable in any employee and at any organizational level; they’re even more important when dealing across cultures. Subtle differences in how people communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, can make the difference between a deal going through and an agreement falling apart. Certainly, it’s helpful to speak the local language. However, with a thorough understanding of the local culture and a skilled translator, it’s possible to be an effective communicator in any country.
- Observation and sensitivity: There are several ways to become more culturally aware. Studying up on the target market is an obvious first step. Still, the most reliable tools could be your level of sensitivity and your powers of observation. When you’re in a foreign country, learn how those around you conduct themselves and their business. Listen more than you talk and chances are you’ll learn more, faster.
- Flexibility: When doing business internationally, you may face situations in which you are not in control or don’t have all the answers. You will have to deal with uncertainty, especially in cultures where communication may be more subtle and nuanced than in the United States. Be patient with yourself as well as with business partners or potential customers. Keep the focus on the big picture.
- Self-awareness: It’s not easy to absorb and understand everything that is happening around you in cross-cultural business settings. At such times, it can be beneficial to tap into your self-awareness skills. Ask yourself, “Why do I think this?” and “Why am I feeling this way?” and then adjust your responses or actions as necessary.
With these considerations in mind, there are strategies that business leaders can adopt in order to nurture and strengthen their cultural awareness. Among them:
- Appreciate differences: A culture is built on more than just food, music, art and clothing. Its foundation includes stories, values and beliefs passed down through generations. Learn to value a culture’s contributions to the greater human story.
- When in doubt, ask: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You won’t be perceived as less intelligent, as people generally appreciate the interest, and enjoy sharing information about their nation and its culture. By being humble and acknowledging that you’re still learning you may be more likely to gain acceptance in a new culture.
- Smile: You may have heard the saying, “A smile is the same in every language.” Indeed, a smile can be a great ice-breaker and stress reliever. Have a smile ready when facing unexpected challenges and look for humor in a predicament.
As the International Monetary Fund noted in 2008, globalization offers “greater opportunity for people to tap into more diversified and larger markets around the world.” Companies with culturally aware leaders at the helm may be better positioned to reap more of those benefits.
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