When doing business on an international level, intercultural skills are vital.
Intercultural Skills: In Theory
The importance of intercultural skills can no longer be denied. Global communication is no longer restricted to certain industries and high-ranking executives but happens on all levels. While superficial cultural differences may vanish with globalization, the underlying values of a society remain.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that cultural awareness and intercultural skills are becoming less important. Quite the contrary: When doing business on an international level, intercultural skills are as vital to success as ever – possibly even more.
Acquiring practical intercultural skills is the hardest part of cross-cultural learning. It’s not quite as simple as deciding between a bow and a handshake or between gripping your business contact’s hand firmly and touching it cautiously.
It means being able to analyze misunderstandings and set them right or avoiding them in the first place. While good seminars may provide the opportunity to practice your intercultural skills in role plays, it should be an ongoing process of learning by doing when you are actually abroad.
Intercultural Skills: In Practice
A famous example of intercultural skills in action is the oft-cited anecdote about a Western expat manager who tried to improve the efficiency of project work in his company’s East Asian branch office. The hefty bonus he promised to the highest-performing member of every project group, regardless of seniority or pay level, didn’t work at all. Indeed, productivity seemed to drop even further. After he’d overcome his initial disappointment and frustration, it dawned on him where his intercultural skills had failed him.
So what had gone wrong? By rewarding an individual group member, he had singled out one person for praise before everyone else, causing the other members of the group embarrassment or even shame. To protect their co-workers from this, the employees had adjusted their behavior accordingly and consciously avoided high performance. Nobody actually wanted to be the “winner” if it meant disrespecting their colleagues’ dignity, especially that of seniors.
When the manager realized that he was violating the basic values of a more collective and hierarchical culture, he put his intercultural skills into practice and changed the incentive. He promised to reward the entire team if they managed to reach a certain goal in a relatively short time, and productivity sky-rocketed. The cohesion of the group hadn’t been endangered; nobody had lost “face”, and the manager had proven his intercultural skills and become an IEP.
Ideally speaking, this is where intercultural skills and competence should lead you.