Tag Archives: communicating across cultures

People and Projects Interview


People and projects

People and Projects Podcast with Andy Kaufman

Recently Tom was interviewed by Andy Kaufman to discuss the importance of cultural intelligence.  Tom and Andy discuss various scenarios from project managing global virtual teams in the U.S. and Germany to planning a visit to China and strategies for facilitating successful virtual meetings.

Click here to Listen

How does Behaviour Inform our Perceptions?


One of the challenges of working across borders is that certain behaviours and styles of communication and body language may not have the same meaning.

For example in countries such as Malaysia the etiquette for shaking hands is a soft hand to demonstrate respect; conversely in Australia a soft handshake can be interpreted as a lack of respect, sign of disinterest, weakness and insincerity. Our mental antenna goes up and we start to look for evidence to support these initial impressions. Are we going to find evidence to support our initial impressions? Most likely yes! The person more than likely will do or say something that will support these impressions. Our biases come to the surface. For example, at the conclusion of a meeting you may be thinking to yourself – “That soft handshake reinforced my initial perceptions. I knew I couldn’t trust him/her.” All of these interpretations can be made from a simple handshake.

I advise clients to not squeeze the hand. Often their response is “but you can tell so much about a person by their handshake.” Think about this for a moment. Is this a universal truth or is it culturally bound? When we interpret behaviours we tend to compare them based on our own cultural practices because we are familiar with them.

There are so many subtle cultural nuances. I had a coaching client from Nigeria who would ask me questions such as, how long do you look at someone in the eye, when does a look become a stare? Have you ever thought about this? My guess is probably no. Conversely, if you are in cultural environments where eye contact should be avoided, how would you know how much is too much?

In countries such as Australia if we go to a bar with friends and colleagues the norm is an unspoken assumption and practice of taking turns to buy the rounds of drinks. We don’t discuss this. It doesn’t matter if you are a guest or not, generally it is an equitable practice where payment of the drinks is shared equally. So imagine this scenario that was shared by one of my clients. He had an Indian manager visiting the Australian office. My client invited him out for a drink after work. My client brought all of the rounds of drinks and was annoyed and irritated that it wasn’t reciprocated. My clients’ internal dialogue was telling him ‘this guy is tight, not generous and has no sense of sharing’.   The following day at work he requested a report that wasn’t delivered on time. The thought processes of my client were, not only is he tight with his money, he is also unprofessional and unreliable. This example demonstrates how one misinformed behaviour can lead to inaccurate perceptions and interpretations. The perception of the Indian manager would have been ‘I am the guest, you are the host therefore you pay. I won’t offend you by offering to buy a drink, and when you come to India I will take you out and I will pay because you are the guest and I am the host.’

It is useful to have a dialogue. It can be uncomfortable raising certain conversation topics but communication and cultural awareness and knowledge can be improved immensely when people can pluck up the courage to raise the uncomfortable, awkward conversations.

The questions that we need to be thinking about are:

  • How can I develop flexibility and cultural agility?
  • How can I learn the important behaviours and values of the cultures that I am working across?
  • How can I understand what are the things in my culture that are important; and what impact do they have when I am dealing with people of different cultures?


The Role of CQ in the Changing World of Business


Here are a couple of short interviews that Patrick Rundel from ‘Foundation for Young Australians’ conducted with me recently.

What is the role of CQ in the changing workplace?
Has there been a change in how cultures interact in the workplace over the past decade?

Why should young people take an interest in CQ?

Cultural Chameleons


We all know people who are what I term ‘cultural chameleons’, they adjust to pretty much any new cultural environment quickly and with ease. Whether they’re traveling in a work or leisure capacity, or even if they’re in their home environment mixing with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, they know how to communicate at a level that is appropriate to their cultural situation. They possess a genuine interest in learning the cultural nuances and protocols and it all seems to be achieved with a degree of effortlessness.

Where does the CQ drive come from?

Why do some of have it and others find it arduous?

I recently did some work with the CEO of a global corporation. His organisation runs operations in 14 countries located in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. One of his challenges was distinguishing between what are the necessary and unnecessary cultural skills that he needs to apply in order to successfully do his job. The intensity and demands of someone in his position meant that he needed to achieve this balance almost intuitively.

He shared with me the crucial moment when he realised that he needed to improve his cultural intelligence. He was at a train station in Bangkok during what was his first visit to Thailand. As he was rushing to catch a train at peak hour he was shocked and confused to see all movement at the station cease the moment music began to play over the loud speaker. Although he had no comprehension of why this was happening, his reaction was to also stop as he observed his fellow commuters stopping in their tracks. Once the music was finished activity at the station instantly resumed to its previous chaotic level. After observing this situation it instantly became apparent how little he understood the Thai people and their culture, and this event triggered a desire in him to increase his knowledge. He realised that if he wanted to get things done in this country he needed to understand the Thai psyche. He correctly surmised the music was the national anthem but at that point he had no idea of the level of respect that the typical Thai has for his country and king.

Cultural intelligence can be learned. For some people it will be moments like these that trigger the drive to improve cultural knowledge and understanding. A key driver can be purely appreciating that if we want to get things done in the most effective and efficient manner an appropriate level of cultural intelligence is essential. For people who are time poor one of the fastest ways of achieving this is via Cultural Coaching and Mentoring.

Communication Technology and Culture


How does culture impact the effectiveness of communication platforms and apps?

One our Cultural Synergies staff members shared with me a recent article in BRW that reviewed a new app called BLRT. Her interest was piqued since it is an app that has been created with one of the key design requirements being the ability to convey messages, verbally and visually, just as you would in person but without the need to be in the same time zone or location. The app captures voice and gestures and is specifically designed for communicating across different time zones and improving collaboration. As she was describing the app I began to think about how innovative we continue to be in terms of designing and creating new ways of working and communicating across cultures, and also some of the traps that it can inadvertently lead to.

While apps and telecommunication software such as BLRT, Skype, Face Time etc. are all welcome additions to our lives and useful tools for communicating with each other; arguably they still don’t necessarily help us to improve our culturally intelligence. In fact there is the possibility that sometimes they could lead us toward a false sense of our true cultural understandings and knowledge. Accessibility to these platforms is cheap, easy to use and allows us to have cross border conversations at anytime.  Here is my point – even with our constantly evolving telecommunication options, the chances of cultural misunderstandings i.e. missing subtle cues, such as the reason for a seemingly one-way conversation, body language, how our messages were really understood etc continues to persist. While there are clear benefits to working and communicating with these constantly evolving and improved forms of technology, I contend that it doesn’t necessarily translate that we are becoming more culturally aware.

Some useful factors to keep in mind when you are communicating via these technologies are:

  • Be conscious of the speed at which you are speaking. Voice modulation, pronunciation, accents, use of colloquial language etc. all influence how your messages are being received
  • Pay attention to the quieter participants and invite them to speak
  • Summarise what is being said regularly
  • Demonstrate your understandings by paraphrasing the important points to ensure that you have understood the message
  • Spend some time making ‘small talk’. This is invaluable for really getting to know and understand others and in building trust and improving relationships
  • Pay attention to body language, it will help you to understand what is not being said
  • Spend a moment after your conversations and reflect on the success or difficulties that you encountered and seek to understand why they may have occurred and learn from them.

As working across time zones continues to increase we need to regularly remind ourselves that culture will always be a feature that needs to be given the appropriate attention that it demands – this will never change.

The Art of Mindful Leadership

mindfulnessA couple of workshops and a few great articles lately have reinforced the art of mindfulness and its role in changing mind-sets.

Mindfulness makes us less judgemental, more creative, more engaged and open, more productive and allows us to be ‘in the moment’. Mindfulness sets us in good stead for creating an awareness of our mind-sets. The ability to recognise, adapt and flex our mindsets when we are communicating with people across cultures is critical. They affect our behaviours and directly influence the perceptions and credibility that others place on us. An awareness that the other person might be not be receiving our messages and behaviours as per our intentions, can be a great trigger to stop and remember that our reality is just that – our reality. My friend Doreen Teo in Singapore is fond of saying “my intention is my reality, my behaviour is your reality.”

Adjusting mindsets begins with a consciousness of how mindless we can often be. We tend to operate in the same mode that we have always operated in, which is to notice what is visible: By this, I mean actions, results and behaviours, rather than the values, beliefs and attitudes that produce these. Barsh and Lavoie in their article ‘Lead at your best’ point out that by the admission of many leaders, there are often difficulties recognising, accepting and appreciating other viewpoints, and that the consequence is limited potential.

Some great ‘takeaways’ from Barsh and Lavoie are:

  • Practice pausing. Pause and reflect on what you believe is occurring, how you are experiencing the moment and how you feel. Listen for things that aren’t being said. The pause offers a moment for reflection and to make adjustments.
  • A healthy level of trust is critical in any business relationship. Understanding that firstly there are different perceptions of trust therefore it is important to learn what others value and to remember that it is behaviours that instil trust, not just intentions. A mindset of trust feeds a culture of collaboration, inspiration and engagement.
  • Choose your questions wisely. Move from a problem-focused conversation that usually attracts a defensive reaction, to a solution based conversation where people feel more empowered and engaged. If you look for a problem you will find one, just as if you look for a solution people will offer one. Adapt the style of questions depending on who and where you are working. For example when working with people from high context cultures taking a direct and personal blame focus perspective will at best be ineffective. Even in low context cultures this often leads to defensive reactions where people feel targeted, criticised and as a result disengage. By framing questions differently from – “who is to blame?” And “why haven’t you fixed the problem yet?” To, “what would you like to see happen?” And “do you recall a time when the solution was present – at least in part?” These are great strategies for shifting to a solution-based mindset.
  • When problems arise ask people in a group to describe something that they believe is happening ‘under the waterline’ that is potentially causing difficulties. This can be done before meetings or teleconference calls. It offers opportunities to be heard and to hear other perspectives, especially important when working virtually across cultures.

I think that it takes great personal strength to change mind-sets because it requires a certain level of self-effacement, an acknowledgment that we don’t always have ‘it right’ and that we all have blind spots and shortcomings.


Connectivity and Cultural Intelligence

connectingA recent IBM study ‘Leading Through Connections’ identified that the conventional way of working isn’t enough to compete in todays globally competitive environment; and that we need to respond to this new connected era. Organisations need to be more connected with their partners, customers and employees. In addition to this, I posit that culture, time zones and distance further add to the complexities of achieving greater connectivity.

“To innovate, we need to take in insights accumulated across various industries and knowledge generated by many different people.” Kenichiro Yamanishi, President and CEO, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation

“To increase innovation, we will need to transform our organizational culture to be more open and dynamic.”  Jing Xirui, CEO, Beijing-Fanuc Mechatronics

“Fundamentally, the only competitive advantage one has is client knowledge.”  Thomas Kalaris, CEO, Barclays, Wealth and Investment Management.

“You can copy products, but you cannot copy customer relationships!”  Hartmut Jenner, CEO, Alfred Karcher

These are some of the comments that CEO’s contributed to this study. While it is reassuring to hear that these CEO’s recognize and acknowledge that they need to establish relationships with their customers, understand what their markets truly want, create open cultures within their organisations and leverage on the skills and knowledge of all employees, cultural training is an essential ingredient to achieving these objectives across multiple geographic locations. The cultural complexities and challenges that can impede the success of these objectives are often subtle and command leaders and their organisations to realize that overall values, appropriate levels of openness, the importance and processes of establishing relationships, what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior etc are not universal. They are cultural specific and as such require learning and unlearning.

The leaders in this study strive for improved connectivity to provide improved innovation, collaboration, openness, communication, flexibility, engagement, talent development and creativity. Yet organisations can only achieve this to their full potential with a keen sense cultural intelligence. A key challenge that organisations face is identifying their current level of cultural competency which include the cultural knowledge, skills, motivators and strategies required to work effectively across cultures.

As we know culture by its very nature is subjective and laden with different perceptions, meanings and interpretations. Managing, leading and selling across cultures demands adjustment, alignment and fine-tuning of strategies to fit the distinct, unique characteristics that are appropriate to each culture and market.