Twenty years ago, I was sitting in one of the first cultural training courses I ever attended, listening to a hugely experienced trainer, Franck Mugerwa talking about the cultural communication styles of Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the executives asked a question, the answer to which was so obvious but was so important to my understanding of how to approach cultural differences.
The question was, “How can I, a middle-aged white man, adapt my behavior to match the Angolan colleagues I work with?” Franck looked at him, and asked, “Are you Angolan? Are you black? No, of course, you aren’t – so don’t try to be.” We often assume that the way to achieve effective intercultural communication is to abandon our own cultural defaults and match our behaviors and actions to the culture of the people around us.
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Can you adopt a culture and be authentic?
One of the fashionable business buzzwords at the moment is ‘authenticity’ – it’s clear to anyone that you can’t be authentic if you are trying to replicate someone else’s cultural style. More importantly, blindly adopting another cultural style negates the value that you add and causes accusations of insincerity or even cultural appropriation – and in the worst case, you just look stupid!
So where does that leave us? Is all our thinking about cultural differences just of academic interest only?
In an NFL team, you need a variety of and approaches: if everyone wanted to be the quarterback, who would catch the passes? In soccer, if everyone was a defender, who would score the goals? Each person has a role that they are comfortable with and which they are good at.
But there are times when the center forward must come back and help defend, or when a defender needs to go into the opposition penalty box to strengthen an attack. The team needs each person to be good at their specific roles, but to be agile enough to make the right decision at the right time to get the best out of a situation. Sometimes that will be to stick to their role and at others, it will be to venture into a different role.
In the same way, we need a versatile toolkit of options to manage effectively and maximize the productivity of cross-cultural situations. Fortunately, we have the ABCDE Adaptive Strategies to help us develop a truly effective culturally intelligent mindset.
Adapting is a good starting point. It is a conscious effort to move towards the style of the other person. It is not surrendering your position, or imitating the other, but making a deliberate step towards them to reduce the gap. You will find that when you make the first move, frequently others move towards you – a small adjustment from all can lead to a significant improvement in the collaborative culture.
It’s not always the right move – particularly when you are trying to move away from a toxic or unproductive culture, but for a new project or team, adapting can build trust and effectiveness quite quickly
The blend is similar to Adapt, however, it puts a more intentional focus on each person making changes. When you blend cultural approaches, you take the elements of each you want and ask each person to incorporate a new third way. For example, you may need to encourage a more relationship orientation to develop trust and better collaboration, while at the same time you want to encourage more direct feedback by building an explicit orientation for communication.
It is a compromise solution that involves everyone making an adjustment with the goal of creating a new, more effective culture.
Co-creation can be a difficult but extremely worthwhile process. In effect, you invite your team to start with a blank sheet of paper and agree between them an ‘ideal culture’. Each person contributes to identifying a culture that they are comfortable with and classifying it in some kind of mutual agreement.
Co-creation requires a certain level of mutual trust at the beginning and needs a high level of determination to implement the culture. It works best if it focuses just on the areas of the biggest gap rather than addressing everything at once.
Sometimes, the best solution is to just overlook the differences and get on with work. This is particularly effective for short-term projects or in creative situations where a cultural conflict of styles may lead to more innovative outcomes. Again, Divide relies on a strong leader prepared to mediate and facilitate collaboration – and deal with conflicts that step over the line. The divide is not ignoring difference, but a conscious decision to disregard it.
And in some cases, the leader needs just to enforce culture. An underperforming team may need the shake-up of an enforced cultural change to refresh and revive them. Similarly in a dangerous situation, there is no room for compromise and the leader must ensure that the team conforms to a single cultural approach.
It is a risky strategy – it can cause resentment and disaffection and may increase turnover, so it must be balanced carefully to ensure that the benefits outweigh the downsides.
The key to cultural intelligence is choosing the right path from a range of options. The ABCDE strategies give us a toolkit that allows us to remain authentic, but with the agility to flex in the right way to get the most out of each relationship and situation. As more organizations actively seek to diversify their workforce, an intentional approach to harnessing culture will become even more important.
This post was written by Chris Crosby, CEO, and co-founder of Country Navigator. Country Navigator is the provider of cultural diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, creating unique and tailor-made solutions for businesses through inclusion, innovation, and collaboration. From cultural influences to unconscious bias, Country Navigator’s cultural diversity and inclusion training give detailed and highly accurate analysis across parameters including explicit and implicit communication and individual and group identity. Chris has over 30 years of experience in helping leaders, teams, and organizations to work better across cultures.