Working across cultures – difficult or different or both?

How often do you hear similar sentiments expressed by expat managers and team leaders working across cultures:

  • There is zero initiative among my staff. 
  • No one knows how to follow up and deliver on time – I spend half of my week every week requesting things that have been long overdue!
  • All meetings that I have ever attended have been interrupted by at least one cell phone call – and the recipient always took it!
  • Even though I have a separate office (and close the door!), I find myself constantly interrupted by people dropping in to ask me (or tell me) something.
  • A meeting that should last an hour often goes for 3 hours.  It’s so difficult to get people to stay on topic and come to the point.

These examples of frustrations I hear from clients all point to how difficult – and different – it can be to create something together when working with people from diverse cultures.  The words difficult and different represent two different (no pun intended) perspectives of looking at this challenge.

If we look at it from the point of view of “how difficult” it is and nothing else, frustration, hopelessness, and an overwhelming desire to go home drive all of our actions and responses.

If we look at it as “difficult and different” we open up for the possibility of creating out of the difficult by looking at and considering the differences.  How can we create out of what’s different here?

Creating out of the differences requires not only this open-minded perspective but also a good knowledge of where the differences lie — it requires Culture Mastery:

  • What cultural preferences do you and your colleagues differ on?
  • How big/small is the gap?
  • How possible is it for you to adjust your cultural preferences – that is, will it infringe on your values/identity or will it simply be about changing your habits?
  • What cultural alliances can you create to be more effective?

What has been your experience in creating from the different and the difficult?

NEW at the Global Coach Center: Culture Mastery Course (online) that specifically addresses challenges described in the post above.

Copyright © 2011 by Global Coach Center.  If you’d like to reprint this, please do so but make sure you credit us (with a live link)!

2 responses to “Working across cultures – difficult or different or both?

  1. Definitely both!

    After seven years in Thailand I have been through all highs and lows of expat life.

    Getting to know another country from the inside is a privilege and a great experience. It broadens one’s horizon and takes your personal growth to another level.

    However, it’s not always bright, and there were days when I was desperate.

    Sent here as a highly-paid manager meant not only good job combined with a comfortable life style. I often felt sandwiched between high expectations from headquarters and local realities! Whereas I knew how to deal confidently with the challenges in my home country, in Thailand my head would often hit a wall.

    I am a very open-minded person, but I was not prepared that cultures between two countries could be that different.

    What advice would I give Western expat managers in Thailand based on my own experience?

    – Open-mindedness is not sufficient; being open-minded is an indispensable minimum requirement!

    – Attend an inter-cultural training before relocation

    – If possible, learn the Thai language

    – No matter how much you think you know, be ready to throw your Western thinking overboard

    – Look for a confidant, a role model who deals well with the local people, a mentor, or a coach in the host country. Someone you can learn from and who eventually supports you when the going gets tough.

    – Accept the highs and the – inevitable – lows. Be aware that you cannot meet everybody’s expectations (including your own) at all times.

    – ENJOY!

    Chok dii khrap.

  2. I totally agree with different and difficult, and it certainly is something that takes a lot to adapt to. I’ve worked to 2 years in Costa Rica, and much like any other latin american country, it takes a setback in every sense of the word.

    It takes a great amount of patience, learn a great deal about their behaviors, but don’t indulge in them. Let them realize that your role is also crucial for their well-being, and never let them take too much for granted.

    A reality in more underdeveloped countries, Interpersonal relationships achieve more attention than personal ambitions. Therefore finding a local idol, or someone with a status that they admire will carry them believe in themselves in their work, and also believe that they’re place at work is worthwhile.

    Learn to achieve their personal goals, and admirations and in return they would admire the boss’s efforts as a person rather just their dictator boss

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