Have you ever left a meeting thinking it went extremely well, blissfully unaware that your counterpart thought otherwise? This happens far more often than one gives credit to, and it can be the cause of many difficulties and misunderstandings in communicating, especially in today’s diverse and globalised workplace.

In life and in business, we often see the world only through our own cultural lens, assuming that culture doesn’t matter and expecting other people to act and respond like we would. There is some inherent bias in this, as we base these assumptions on our own experience, expertise, and beliefs, which are in themselves limiting.

Lack of cultural awareness and cultural intelligence can destabilise you and your company, making your meetings more difficult, hampering your team’s motivation, and damaging your work relationships. This is especially true if your business success relies on your ability to work successfully with people from around the world.

However, if one develops the skills to become culturally intelligent and promotes a systematic company-wide approach to diversity and inclusion, this intercultural and international new lens to business can turn diversity into a major keystone for success.

The fear: differences are an obstacle

In her book, The Culture Map, Erin Meyer, cultural expert and professor at INSEAD Business School, explains that while cultural differences are shown to be a source of difficulty, they can also be used by a company as a competitive advantage.

Using studies and sociological and anthropological research, Meyer has developed eight cultural scales that represent the key areas that managers should be aware of when considering how national cultural differences may impact their business. One of these is the persuading scale.

According to Meyer’s analysis, countries tend to adopt one of two different styles of reasoning: principles-first vs. applications-first. Principle-first reasoning (or deductive reasoning) derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts. You start with the theory of the general principle and move it to a practical conclusion.

With applications-first reasoning (or inductive reasoning), you observe data from the real world, and, based on these empirical observations, you draw broader conclusions. From the observation of a case study, for example, one derives some general conclusions.

Most people are capable of practicing both principles-first and applications-first reasoning. But your habitual pattern of reasoning and the one that you grow to believe to be the most sound and sometimes the only possible one is heavily influenced by the kind of thinking that is emphasised in your culture’s educational structure.

Whereas school systems in Anglo-Saxon countries tend to emphasise the applications-first method of teaching, school systems in Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, Portugal), the Germanic countries (Germany, Austria), and Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina) tend to teach principles-first reasoning instead.

In business, people from principles-first cultures generally want to understand the why behind a request, and want to see a counterargument to the approach before they move to action. Meanwhile, applications-first learners tend to focus less on the why and more on the how. They prefer synthesis and tend to jump straight to the recommendations, often in bullet point form.

To portray this difference of reasoning, Meyer recounts two episodes involving Kara Williams, an American engineer working for a German company and Jens Hupert, a German director in her company who previously worked in the United States for many years. Both faced great difficulties when presenting, respectively, in front of a German and an American audience. This is how Hupert recalls the problems he had the first few times he tried to make a persuasive argument before a group of his American colleagues:

“In Germany, we try to understand the theoretical concept before adapting it to the practical situation. To understand something, we first want to analyse all of the conceptual data before coming to a conclusion. When colleagues from cultures like the US or the UK make presentations to us, we don’t realise that they were taught to think differently from us. So, when they begin by presenting conclusions and recommendations without setting up the parameters and how they got to those conclusions, it can actually shock us. We may feel insulted…this reaction is based on our deep-seated belief that you cannot come to a conclusion without first defining the parameters.”

So, while Americans are taught to get right to the point and focus on practicalities rather than theory, Germans develop a preference to consolidate the general theory before deciding how to tackle a problem. Both ways have their own strengths and weaknesses. When one is not aware of these differences, a feeling of frustration and incompatibility might arise. For example, one might not be able to persuade others to implement a certain change or strategy. And this is exactly what happened in Meyer’s story.

However, if combined, the two perspectives can provide a broader and more comprehensive overview, which can enable a team to see a problem from different points of view, assess all risks and challenges, and ultimately offer more effective solutions.

Imagine the potential that this diversity of thinking can bring to a company, if one understands how to create a space where each member of the team feels encouraged to bring their diverse point of view to the benefit of the company.

Build your diverse company with cultural intelligence

If you also want to enter the diversity revolution and bring your company’s potential to the next level, you should start by understanding your own biases and developing your own cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence revolves around a person’s capability to adapt to new and diverse cultural contexts and have the competence to grasp, reason and behave effectively according to the different people and situations he or she is faced with. According to David Livermore, the founder of the Cultural Intelligence Center, this is the variable that will determine whether or not you will be a successful leader.

Start by asking yourself these questions: How much do I know about other cultures? What about the cultures in my team? And what about the other people in my team? Do we see the differences as an opportunity or an ‘obstacle’ to the company?

Once you have understood your own and your team’s cultural differences, adjust your communication and negotiation style to the people you work with or set up team rules considering and valuing all the different cultural styles. Remember that, at first, you might feel frustration or tiredness. It’s normal. Be patient with others and yourself. Having differences within the company is not easy.

Whenever we enter into a conflict, we may feel misunderstood or annoyed and leave convinced that our vision is the only right one. Try to understand where the other person’s perspective is coming from and why they reached their own conclusion. Because this type of conversation, where we confront our different ideas, is what leads to innovation. As with any skill, cultural competence takes time to perfect, but the benefits outweigh the downsides. 

The intercultural expert and business consultant Fons Trompenaars calls this process “reconciling cultural dilemmas”. According to him, a dilemma is having two things (or better values) that are important to us and feeling like we have to sacrifice one for the other. How we tend to solve dilemmas in our lives is often driven by our national culture. Corporate culture is the end result of conflicting values, where one value dominates its opposite, often at the expense of performance. To overcome this need of choosing, to overcome having winners and losers, he suggests a paradigm shift: reconciling, or even merging conflicting values, moving from “either… or” to “…and …”

Companies must understand that if they are able to reconcile dilemmas and integrate different perspectives, they could find better, innovative, unexpected and creative solutions. In today’s multicultural business environment, if organisations want to be successful, they need to have a high level of flexibility, innovativeness and adaptability. The benefits of diversity stem from its wide range of perspectives, which allows companies and people to see the same situations from several different angles and make better, more informed decisions. Even in the most complex situations, understanding how cultural differences affect the mix may help you discover new approaches to your everyday work.

The author would like to thank Lucrezia Baldo, GMD intern, for her support in the research and writing of this article.

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