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Intercultural Management in the Global Economy (part 1)

By Bisk

A Discussion with Notre Dame Professor Elizabeth Tuleja (Part I)

Elizabeth TulejaThe increasing globalization of the marketplace carries immense implications for the U.S. economy and for companies hoping to do business abroad. In 2012, exports of U.S. goods and services hit a record $2.2 trillion and supported almost 10 million jobs, according to the Department of Commerce.

With manufacturing operations and supply chains spanning national borders, intercultural skills and knowledge are assuming a growing importance for many firms.

Award-winning educator and author Elizabeth A. Tuleja, PhD, teaches Intercultural Management and Intercultural Communication courses for the online and campus-based MBA and Executive MBA programs at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Tuleja also is a fellow at Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies and its Institute for Asia and Asian Studies.

As a consultant, Tuleja has shared her expertise in management communication with the U.S Marine Corps, Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Bank of America and China Development Bank, among other clients. She previously taught at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees.

Tuleja is the author of Intercultural Communication for Business and her research has focused on global leadership and intercultural communication. Her Global Business Leader website offers guidance to professionals seeking to understand the complexities of global communication.

We spoke with Tuleja recently about some of the challenges facing U.S. businesses and corporate leaders in a global economy, and about the role of intercultural management.

What do you find to be the most interesting part of intercultural management?

The most interesting part of intercultural management is learning something new each day. When interacting with people from other cultures there is always something to learn, so there is an ongoing learning challenge. Even if you have lived in another culture for years, you discover new things every day. This learning process keeps us on our toes and there are always new possibilities around every corner. 

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Observers can see the chess game more clearly than the players.” Chinese proverbs are profound because their simplicity is rooted in wisdom that is based on observation of familiar circumstances and situations. When I talk with business people about intercultural issues in management, it’s important to understand that we don’t really see our culture unless we bump up against the behavior, language, situations, etc., of another culture. Then we start to notice differences. We naturally assume that everyone else thinks the same way that we do, communicates the same way that we do and behaves the same way that we do. We are too busy being engaged in our “game” to have a proper perspective. 

Social psychologists tell us that it’s a natural process of socialization for people to see things based upon their own experiences and world views – that is ethnocentrism. However, to be able to engage socially on a deeper level, it is necessary for us to develop ethnorelativism, which opens our eyes to other perspectives. It’s our ability to view the values and behaviors of others as cultural and not simply universal (i.e., if we behave a certain way, others will also). This doesn’t mean losing one’s core values; rather it is a way to step outside of one’s vantage point and try to see things from someone else’s perspective.

It’s common for Europeans to know several languages and have experience with different cultures. Does this place U.S. businesses and professionals, who are frequently not multilingual or multicultural, at a disadvantage in a global economy? If so, how can they overcome it?

Europeans have an advantage because the cultural norm is that they grow up needing to speak several languages due to their geographical proximity to other countries. With that comes the added advantage of experiencing the norms of other cultures on a daily basis. But simply being in contact with or experiencing other cultures does not necessarily mean a person will be culturally sensitive. Humans naturally default to ethnocentrism (the attitude that one’s group is superior) and we need to be reminded that flexibility, patience and adaptability are necessary.

For example, recent research in the intercultural field regarding study abroad has shown that it is not the length of time spent abroad, the study of a language or even living with a host family that determines whether a person will become culturally sensitive and adaptable. Rather, it is the constant and conscious reflection on what is happening and why it is happening that helps a person become interculturally competent.

As business professionals, we can take a strong lesson from this in that whether we have had a lot of experience working across cultures, a little or none, all of us need to be aware that cultural differences exist. We need to develop a deeper understanding of the values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of those with whom we work and/or live, and then do something about it. By that I mean self-monitoring and examining our behaviors and interactions by reflecting on what went well and what didn’t go well. We also need to be open and ask someone from that particular cultural background how they might have interpreted the interaction, all the while realizing that culture is fluid and, even though we can make generalizations about certain aspects of any given culture, all people are different to some extent.

We need to remain open and flexible versus rigid and fixed. When we do this, coupled with our growing knowledge of other cultures, we can develop a repertoire of responses for any situation in which we find ourselves.

What do you consider to be the biggest mistake U.S. businesses make when engaging in intercultural communication?

The biggest mistake is thinking that your area of expertise is enough to be successful in doing business across cultures.

At first glance, the notion of a global leader usually denotes someone who is able to deftly perform a merger and acquisition, or easily navigate the intricacies of global supply chain management or comprehend the myriad details of international accounting practices.  However, it is simply not enough to possess the functional business skills in order to navigate successfully in the global business environment. 

Another common misconception is that successful leadership skills practiced in one’s own culture are naturally transferable when applied in another cultural setting. We learn of many cross-border deals and negotiations that fall flat simply because not enough due diligence has been performed or key players are unable to adapt readily to the challenges found in cross-cultural relations – even though such high performers may have performed well with their previous assignment. Research into cultural intelligence (CQ) by Christopher Earley and Soon Ang has shown that there are many differences involved in the transfer of such leadership capabilities because what may be meaningful and appropriate in one context could be insulting and improper in another based upon the cultural norms for living.

For example, let’s say you are an accountant and have risen through the ranks within your organization. Because of your expertise, you are selected to go to Chile to work on a partnership with another company. You figured that you would easily adjust to Chilean culture because you enjoy the Latin culture overall – you had studied Spanish in high school, spent a semester in Seville, Spain, during college and now enjoy vacationing in Mexico with your family.  However, once you get to Chile and have to set up your household, get your family settled and learn to adapt daily to another way of thinking and behaving as you manage a team of junior accountants, you realize that what you signed up for was not what you expected. Your expectations for efficiency, consistency and accuracy are not the same as your employees or colleagues. It becomes harder and harder to accomplish the goals of the joint venture because of the day-to-day struggles to communicate and fit in with your counterparts.

Global leaders today are required to readily adapt to change and deal with complexity within interpersonal relationships in order to flourish in an environment of ambiguity. Global leadership means that a person possesses intercultural competence, also known as CQ, or cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is the ability to both recognize and understand the beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors of others, and then be able to apply that knowledge by adapting your behavior accordingly.

This is what makes a business person successful when working across borders or with people in their offices who hold different world views.

Category: Intercultural Management