Tag Archives: Intercultural Competence

What we know can get in our way. This is true with intercultural knowledge too. We tend to assume that everything works exactly as it does in our home culture. And then we experience the opposite.

It could be that a train is not running when we expect one. The definition of „morning“ could be different than “roughly between 7 and 10 am”. Machines for petrol, for parking or for payments could be running in another way than what we are used to. Locks could turn the other way round.

It could be common to have a net price for a meal on the menu, a charge for the cover, a charge to open a bottle and the VAT added at the end of invoice. Maybe the tip is a lot higher or lower than what you are used to.

Crossing cultures you could be confused by words, by language, by habits, and by standards. It could be that your expectation of „normal“ is absurd in the other context. It could happen that you drink water from the tab and it is detrimental to your health.

Intercultural crossings have been as old as Europe. We (Europeans) never had to go far to hear a language that we do not understand. We know the feeling of being in a place where you have a different currency, different plugs, and different rules. We enjoy these little challenges as long as we are tourists. We enjoy our incapabilities in the language. When we have crossed many cultures and lived abroad, we tend to overestimate our intercultural competence. We tend to think that we are good at communicating with people from other cultures. This might be easy on holidays but it could be a challenge when we are managing a global and virtual team.

As managers, we then often ask our team members to follow our cultural dominance. We assume that we create the rules because we were chosen to lead. We assume that we can become irritable and impatient with our staff if they do not „get it“ right away. We assume that we don’t have to change, but the others have to.

Think of your last week.

Did you think to yourself „Why don’t they get it?“. Have you been annoyed or even angry with one of your team members from another culture? Have you said „…this process is not efficient“? These could be signs that you are not yet a global leader and that your intercultural competence has not evolved yet. It could be a sign that you still have a lot to learn in interactions with people in general but especially with people from other cultures.

Tell me what you remember.

Kind regards,

Angela

PS: This post is about a related theme on aggression at work and five methods to reduce aggressive and annoying behavior in the workplace.

 

In the TGV Lyria the French train running between Paris and Zurich all seats are normally taken. Like on a plane you need to sit in your reserved seat. In Switzerland there are no reservations. When a train gets too full and extra train is implemented during high times. Switzerland deals with this issue by adding more trains.

On Saturday, I entered the train in Dijon (France – the city of mustard) and placed my suitcase at the beginning of the compartment but could not find me seat in the lower deck. First I thought that there was an error on my ticket. Then I noticed the upper deck. I walked back, went up the stairs and thought “I must remember where I placed my suitcase.”

When I found my assigned seat 106 it was taken by a young girl. I experienced how my “Germanic” sense and preference for structure and order immediately was challenged. My stomach gave me messages “Out of order, not right, what is happening here?”

I tried my best French to state that I had a reservation. The girl showed me her ticket and explained in French that there was a mix up as the young couple in the seat in front of her had taken their seats. No one showed signs of getting up for a middle-aged woman. (My brain said “These younglings…no respect for age.”)

I saw no point in getting angry at the girl and her cute little sister who explained again the same.

I was thinking about approaching the couple directly but for a few minutes I did not know what to say and how to stay polite in French. Then a veiled lady told me to wait for the conductor. I felt out of place as people were trying to pass by. I thought about sitting out the problem and felt a frog creeping in my throat as I tried to say in French that I was standing here like an idiot because of a mix up of seats. I was also getting hot in my winter jacket and worried about fainting.

I felt tired and wanted to sit and work. I don’t like it when my plans get interrupted. I waited in silence and looked at my ticket to decide how long I could stand here. The girl (who was in the wrong seat) became nervous. She urged her boyfriend to handle this embarrassing situation. Then another young man got up and showed him something on his phone. The boy turned to me and said in English “You can take my seat. It’s number 64.“

I went back to the lower deck where I had left my suitcase, could not find 64, then went back up, passed by the boy and smiled. “It’s probably over there”. Then I asked the passenger in seat 64 if he had a reservation. He said yes. I apologized, went back to the boy and said “Did you say 64 or 46?”. He smiled “I said 54.”

I smiled, finally found seat 54 and ended up near where I had originally placed my suitcase.

Why am I telling you this?

I thought this is one of the situations that you experience in a new country all the time during your cultural adjustment.

I was proud of myself that I did not get too angry and tried to use humor in an awkward social situation in a language I did not feel 100% comfortable in. It also showed me again that your inner state is important when handling intercultural issues. You can solve problems better when you stay calm and composed even if a situation upsets you.

This situation gave me a good chance to apply my seven principles for intercultural effectiveness and I learnt once again

I could have reacted differently but by being quiet and patient the younglings came up with a solutions that was a win-win for all of us.

Other lessons learnt that help in intercultural settings.

1) Communicate your Needs

I should have said that I need to sit and work. Everything else did not matter to me. I should have said that I did not sleep well and that my back hurts when I stand to long but I did not. Maybe I could have arranged the new seat faster with better communication and checking in about the seat number. How often does it happen in intercultural communication that we do not really understand each other?

2) Forget Powerplay, Authority and Assumptions about Social Hierarchy

It’s not always necessary to play a power game when you can solve problems together. In order to do that you need to keep an open mind and accept a bit of chaos (which is hard with a Germanic mindset). I admit I felt a bit entitled and was going to pull an arrogant move, about how I had paid for my seat etc…but something stopped me from doing that. Maybe I am not that kind of person anymore.

3) Religion means nothing – Love is everything

The boyfriend’s argument “I wanted to be close to my girlfriend…” convinced me and I really did not question that I could take his seat instead. I loved that everyone seemed to sympathize with me and engaged in my “problem”. I expected the least support from the veiled lady but she immediately provided a solution. My heart went out to her as I thought she does not need to help a stranger.

 

4) Small issues can create big emotions

Although this was such a small dilemma it almost made me cry. I felt awkward and out of place, someone who does not fit in and this probably triggered old childhood memories of being new in class with a funny accent when I was showing up in second grade after our big family move. Watch your feelings and emotions. They might be triggered by old memories.

IMG_2748

This German booklet on intercultural competence gives a good overview of the topic and uses layman language to explain basics of intercultural dimensions, culture standards and differences based on research by Hofstede, Trompenaars, and Hall. The booklet also gives ideas on how to develop intercultural competence and has pragmatic examples, that are relevant in today’s business world. An example is feedback culture and how German managers are often perceived as harsh and unfriendly when giving feedback. German managers are willing to listen to such tips as often they do not intend to be unfriendly, but it is the way they are brought up. It would be helpful to have a similar booklet in English, especially if you would like to give it out in training. If you are a German-speaking internationally mobile manager the booklet is ideal for you especially when you are confronted with intercultural communication for the first time. Due to the readable pocket book size, it can be easily read on a plane or train ride to your next international business negotiation.

I recommend this booklet with 4/5 stars.

Angela Weinberger


We have become accustomed to drama everywhere and we are used to arguing in meetings for the sake of positioning ourselves. Sometimes you just want to win over the other person’s view. It’s about who knows (insert random topic here) better than the other. On the surface. What is this really about though?
Have you ever considered that you jump into an argument easily not because you want to move forward the team and “think further and outside the box” but just because you like power? Have you considered that you are worried about losing power when you treat your team members with respect and listen to them instead of thinking that you know best of all?
I revisited the “Seven Habits of highly effective People” by Stephen Covey through this video recently. I was lucky to “win” access to one of Stephen’s talks around 13 years ago in Frankfurt. I was very impressed with him especially when he made a the full concert hall of around 5000 managers stand up, close their eyes, turn around several times and then point towards “North”. There were around 35 different options to show North.
Global Mai 13 _061
I really liked to see that one of his principles was to think “win-win” and while this often sounds a bit cliché nowadays it is still the best tactic ever.
When drama is missing from our lives this could be a sign that we have made significant progress in our inner development. Maybe we have grown up and started to take responsibility for our actions.
This is the balance we need in order to lead ourselves. If we cannot lead ourselves yet it is hard to lead others. I admire leaders who are calm and chose their actions and words deliberately.
In the corporate world I’ve seen a lot of the opposite. Department meetings often are kindergarden. After a while you can foresee the games colleagues play with each other. You can see the subtle and overt aggression they would show in their argumentation.
Many times you can see if you listen to the tone of voice rather than content that most discussions in meetings are either about ego or about relationship between two members of the group. I often hear “We argue for the sake of the company, vision or cause.” I am not sure this is true.
When you have clear roles and responsibilities, a team of grown-ups and a good leader, team members usually discuss how they can support each other get the job done. This takes trust and in my experience at least two years of relationship work.
In task-oriented cultures such as Switzerland, the relationship work is often neglected in the name of “efficiency”. It would be better to kill the term “efficiency” from your vocabulary if you work across cultures and with people with a diverse set of cultural and personal backgrounds.
If you want to become effective as a team you need to invest in the relationship level of the team members. You need to create the framework for a supportive atmosphere in which every team members feels valued and can share her view in a way that is appropriate to them.
You probably now wonder “Ok, I know that but it easier said than done.” and as so often you are hoping for the quick fix, the recipe or the shortcut to global virtual team productivity. May I take your delusions from you?
There are no shortcuts in life. Someone will always suffer if you try the quick fixes, the formula or the recipes that might work for others. You will first of all need to work on yourself. Once you are ready to be a “rounded” leader who can set aside ego and nurture a team then you can read the five tough steps to start working together.

1) Confront your fears and find a place of self-awareness within you

That is the hardest part of self-development. Often our ego is strong and demands that we nurture it daily. It is like the flesh-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors”. The ego needs fodder. We have built ways of showing to ourselves that we are worthy. It could be the new certificate that you have to attain, the endorsements on LinkedIn or the positive feedback you expect in your performance reviews and your 360-evaluation. You behavior is driven by optimizing your evaluation, turnover and other KPIs. How will you learn to be self-sufficient without depending on numbers that prove you are a superhero?

2) Identify the formal roles and responsibilities of your team members

While every team needs formal roles and responsibilities most conflicts occur at the handover points. In a fully functioning and high performing team everyone also supports the other team member when they sense that the other team member is overloaded or when they feel that they have capacity. The more dispersed and virtual the team works, the harder it is to see how much capacity everyone has. It is your job as the leader to identify the gaps and to build a feedback loop where team members can openly communicate when they feel overloaded or when they do not have enough challenging work. You probably understand that every team member needs a healthy mix of challenges and routine tasks in order to be satisfied at work.

3) Unmask the informal roles of your team members

In your team you will find informal roles too. In a flatter hierarchy you might have an opinion leader who does not necessarily agree with you. You might find this team member challenging but this team member could be your greatest ally and supporter if you understood how this person needs to be led or managed. Maybe they need more encouragement, maybe they need more informal exchanges of ideas or maybe they need more structure and deadlines. You need to learn to read your team members and the informal roles they play and then adapt your management style accordingly.

4) Find out the areas of support for the team members

In my management and coaching experience I learnt that every member of a team has needs. It sometimes took me up to two years to drive a team to high performance and great collaboration. When you understand the gaps and learning steps the team member has to go through to get to the next level you will also understand how you can lead this person to success. Instead of asking them to work on projects that are way out of their capabilities you can give them small success experiences so they can grow in small steps and keep their self-confidence in tact. I have seen many good team members in other teams who were crushed and did not believe in their competencies anymore because their manager was incompetent or over confident.

5) Ensure every team member has a voice

In any intercultural team but also monocultural team you will have more introverted team members. They will not always speak up in meetings and voice their opinions. Others might just feel it is not worth to discuss further and shut up. You can use various tools and methods to give your quieter team members a voice. It also helps if you ask a neutral facilitator to support your annual kick-off meetings or other team building exercises. You might not see yourself how you hinder certain team members from voicing their opinion. Be aware of your assumptions too. When a team member is very engaged but not necessarily of the same view as you are it could be a good point to consider.
These are five tough ways to improve your collaboration in global virtual teams. In my experience this process is easier when you have a facilitator on your side. Let me know if you have any questions.

By @angieweinberger

When I ask Zarah for her name we instantly connect. She laughs with me „Can we help you Madam?“. I have to laugh. Here’s a young refugee offering to help me bringing the IKEA bag with men’s shoes (in the right sizes) into the „distribution center“. Zarah wears a top that indicates she likes to go clubbing. It’s probably a donation she received in her last night’s interim camp in Serbia. Today she made it into the European Union. She’s with her husband. They beam at me.

I am going inside the white tent. She has to stay behind the table. She needs a warmer shirt size 36 I assume. Little chance that I find a fitting top right away but I find a sweater she is happy with. Later I see her again. Her English is fluent. I distribute scarves and hats at the time. I don’t ask a lot of questions but having her name helps me finding her in the crowd again. With the men it is harder. They all call me „friend“. I try to differentiate their faces. Holding up pants too big or too small, then in one box I find a pair of pregancy pants. The young man says „yes“ and laughts. It’s the first one that fits after I held up about five pairs. I pull out a sweater which looks a perfect fit for a stronger young man. „This is your style“. He smiles at me. „Thank you.“ „Pleasure“.

When I cannot find what we need and wish this place had a better structure so I could find pants and shoes in the right size I ask the volunteer woman who seems to have the supervision here.
„Men ask for shoes. Shall I go to storage. There was a delivery.“
„Yes, and can you bring women’s jackets too.“.
I need to get out of the small unorganized tent. It seems to be a waste of effort. So I become a deliverer. I walk with my torch between the storage and distribution tent.

When my IKEA bags are empty I go back to refill sleeping bags, mats, tents and blankets. The soft ones. I hand them to men. One at a time. We don’t want waste. Everyone is very grateful. A young men needs a baby sleeping bag. By the time I am back with a few of them and a bottle and a tent I don’t see him anymore. I hope his baby will be warm enough.

The interim camp in Rözke welcomes the refugees crossing the Serbian boarder. After they walk for another five kilometers they arrive and are given food, tea and a chance to rest.

Most of the refugees look tired but well groomed considering what they have been through. I am humbled. Thinking about how fast I complain on travel I do for fun or business.

It would have helped if we had more clarity on the process

"Mission One" - 11 SEPT 2015 - Action from Switzerland
“Mission One” – 11 SEPT 2015 – Action from Switzerland

On one of my deliveries two women in their early 20ies ask me about the busses. They look like Eritreans but then I cannot really tell because it is dark. Maybe they are from Syria, maybe not.

„We have heard rumors that people wait for eight hours for the bus in the heat. What happens if they keep us here for the three days? Will we be kept in a camp or arrested“. I have the impression they are alone. No husbands. „Please get onto a bus tomorrow. They will take you to a train station nearby and then you can move on.“

I understand that fingerprinting is an issue for many refugees and wish I had more current information. In their case I prioritize security. I ask them to go to the large blue and white tent so I can find them with a tent for themselves. When I get back I cannot see them. I wonder if they decided to walk to Szeged, the next town 10 km away. I did not ask for their names. I wish I had.

In Röszke giving a smile to a refugee or making them laugh by talking Arabic could be worth as much as a fleece blanket. I try to multitask. It works. We work on from 11 pm to 2 am. It feels like an hour. I can see that the number of men looking for pants or shoes is reduced and many refugees sleep in tents or outside. We speak to other volunteers. We build relationships to UNHCR staff from Hungary.

The morning already seems days away. We left from our hotel in Kecskemet where Gabor, the manager wishes us luck and tells us that he’ll pray for our mission. We are six volunteers today. The men have medical supplies, mats and blankets. The van I rented has 200 sleeping bags and lots of other donations. The backpacks we loaded last are well received and gone right after we are allowed to pass the police stop at the entrance.

We waited there for about an hour, giving out „snickers“ to the young officers who seem to be tired. They liked our van. I drive the van to the blue and white tent. We unloaded only what the tent required: Shoes for men, shampoo and toilet packs and a few sleeping bags. The first woman I meet with a child asks for cream. I cannot find it but she is happy for the toilet kit.

We unloaded all other donations go in the newly built storage tent. We help build up the storage tent in an organized way. Normally this field is used to grow plants. The storage tent is made in a field. We managed to keep sleeping bags, clothes clean and dry. Trucks from mainly German-speaking countries unloaded their donations during the day. A UNHCR staff from South America coordinates income and orders. I like her calm and structured approach. The warm weather helps to keep the donations dry but is also a threat to the refugees when they have to queue to get on to a bus.

Our four men Thomas, Balz, Edi and Patric left us to do other tasks. I feel they have more stamina. I am careful not to overwhelm myself. I take breaks when I need them. In a moment of frustration about not finding everything in the distribution tent I leave that space. There seem to be enough tired volunteers so I start to do the runs between the two tents.

The volunteer experience shows me that our support can be very useful if we keep certain measures and have contacts we can trust on the ground. If you consider volunteering I’d advise you have a conversation with Gabrielle or myself first. We need Arabic, Farsi, Urdu speakers and drivers. If you’d like to come on a “mission” to Eastern Europe, you should commit to at least four days as you probably need a day to rest once you return.

If you would like to understand how you can support ACTION FROM SWITZERLAND please join the Facebook Group of Action from Switzerland.

Here is also a nice summary of our support by watson.ch.