This month, I teamed up with Susan Salzbrenner at Aperian Global to co-write this guide on building cultural agility in 2017.
It’s astonishing to look back at my work week and think about how many people I interacted with that do not share my cultural background. I live in Denmark, and in the past five days, I met up with a client in France, had video conferences with people across four other countries, collaborated on projects stretch across nine time zones, and then, in the evenings, I finally managed to catch up with friends in the U.S. and Indonesia.
International borders seem to be crossed on a daily basis in our work and private life, but the cultural borders in our head remain active without us being aware of it. When you go abroad for a skill-based volunteering experience (aka Experteering) or an international work rotation for your organization, the difference in behaviors, attitudes and traditions can be seen, felt, and heard. But when we remain in the comfort of our office or home, it becomes harder to attribute culture as a cause for frustrations in teams and projects.
Artist Yang Liu highlights cultural differences with art in her book East Meets West
Recognizing and responding appropriately in cross-cultural situations requires cultural agility. It calls for awareness of (sometimes subtle) differences in worldviews, communication preferences, and behaviors that reflect cultural values. But first and foremost it requires a mindful awareness of our own preferences, values, and biases that affect how we view the world.
Developing cultural agility is a journey, and one that is best embarked upon by actively learning and doing. Here are three things that you can doing 2017 to start to boost your competency in cross-cultural situations.
“It’s impossible for man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
Learn about yourself
Developing cultural agility starts with knowing where you stand. Without having a strong grasp on your own lenses through which you see the world, it proves difficult to build a bridge to those less similar to you.
Survey tools that are grounded in research on personality traits and work styles like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Predictive Index (PI), and DISC profile can help you as a starting point in learning more about your own preferences. Online cultural agility tools such as GlobeSmartⓇ look at your cultural communication style on five dimensions and create your own profile that form the basis of a comparison with others.
Learn about your family
A culture is, broadly speaking, the behavior observed by a group of people that share a set of values. One of the groups we often neglect to look at when it comes to our moral code, ingrained normative and belief system is the family. Have you ever considered auditing your family norms and traditions?
Were there certain topics that everyone knew would never be discussed at the dinner table? Did your parents have certain expectations of you as a student or a family member? Many of the roles we slip into and behaviors we exhibit stem from the closest peers and first people of authority we knew- our family. We were taught what was considered “right and wrong” and “good and bad”. Over time, role expectations, values and attitudes subconsciously became our guiding principles.
The next time you are home to visit family, take an observer role, or try to explain the “unwritten rules of your family” to your partner.
Learn about your country
Many of us experience difficulty when asked to describe the culture of our home nation. It is only when we venture out of our known stomping grounds that we realize what it means to be, for example, French, U.S. American, or Nigerian. Confrontations, conflicts or frustrations abroad or when working with colleagues of a different national background visibly paint a lively picture of the saying “there is more than one way to reach your goals.”
To develop cultural agility in our approaches, it can be helpful to learn more about our own country’s culture to a) observe the influence it has had on your style and b) articulate why you have certain preferences to outsiders of that culture.
Learn about your company and learning institution
Where you were educated (and how you were educated), can influence your culture, and how you communicate across them. It also impacts the way you work, train, and manage. Just like you take time observing your country, your family, and self, also take a look at your company for the way it has influenced you and your own cross-cultural tendencies.
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do”
- Carl Gustav Jung
We already consume a lot of information throughout our day with the help of our mobile devices. In fact, our consumption is much higher than we estimate, as a recent UK study by Nottingham Trent University has found. On average, young adults spend up to one third of their awake time on mobile devices, says Dr. Sally Andrews. The worry of the study’s authors us that this extended exposure “...seems to be habitual, automatic behavior that we have no awareness of.” But consuming media is not the only thing that we’re doing in such habitual ways. How often do you get to work without being able to remember the drive or the train ride? How often do you catch yourself forgetting something that you wanted to do because it wasn’t part of your normal routine?
The Atlantic writes about smiling and intelligence
Gaining cultural agility and knowledge about other cultures and the people living in it cannot be done unconsciously. We have to actively seek out new information and incorporate into our thought patterns and behaviors. A daunting but enriching task.
As you seek to gain more cultural understanding about your virtual colleagues, your new country of residence, or simply other people, reading is a great way to start.
- Read news from foreign news sources (e.g. foreign newspapers that have an English language section like Sueddeutsche, AlJazeera, Politikken, blogs, online magazines (like Huffington Post) to get a different angle on what is happening in the world.
- Read novels or other fictitious pieces of literature that depict the culture at different periods in time, or for different subcultures. A few examples, by country, are Cloud Street by Tim Winton for Australia; Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang for China; Simone and the Oaks by Marianne Fredriksson for Sweden, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett for USA.
- Read cross-cultural management articles like “How to Build Trust on Your Cross-Cultural Team” from Harvard Business Review for best practices in the workplace.
- Use an online tool like GlobeSmartⓇ to compare your personal profile to that of your country’s profile. Where are you similar and were do you differ from the average?
Go & Do
If you are less eager to put more reading material on your night stand to collect dust, then how about getting active to develop cultural agility? Each of us has a different learning style. If you need to learn by doing (and failing), then consider a few of these more active options to increase your competence of working and living successfully in a cross-cultural world.
- Join an association or a network that will expose you to a new culture or subculture. Immerse yourself into a new environment and gain new friends by joining a new circle.
- Step up. If you are already part of an association, take a more active role and leave the comfort zone of being a faceless member. Step out of your comfort zone and become the treasurer, organize the new congress, lead the fundraising committee.
- Take a class. Let your imagination run wild in finding a class that can expose you to a new culture. Think Vietnamese cooking class, Japanese origami, Swahili language course or bachata dance classes to name a few!
- Enroll in an online learning course and interact with the global community. Whether it’s a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on a topic that you need for work (e.g. project management, instructional design) or one that you have a private interest in (e.g. aeronautics, psychology, marketing), there is a course for everyone. The engagement level is quite high and it depends on you to actively seek out learning partners. A few places to look are Coursera, LinkedIn’s Lynda, iVersity, Khan Academy, HBX (Harvards’ own online program), and/ or EdX
3. REFLECT AND CHANGE
“Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.”
Building the competency to work efficiently and successfully with people across the globe is a journey. It requires patience and the ability to deal with ambiguity. Cultural agility requires us to realize that what we know and were taught is only one way to see the world. During this journey, reflection of what we have learned and acquired is key to retain and solidify knowledge, skills and opinions. Depending on your personality and work-style, you will most likely prefer one over the other:
Keep a notebook or a digital app for notekeeping (like Evernote, for example) and create a habit to reflect on your experiences as you learn about and explore yourself and other cultures.
Some people find it helpful to build time each evening to write down three short notes that they want to remember about their learning experience. Others use audio notes while they travel to bring out their thoughts. Find what works for you and keep a consistent log of reflections. Revisit them once a year (or half year, if you’re eager) to visualize the development you’ve undergone.
Work with a mentor / coach
If you need an accountability partner or someone to push you forward, then reflecting with the help of a mentor or coach is a good idea to build a strong foundation for cultural agility. Look for a mentor or coach that does not share your same background to identify your blind spots in the process of becoming a (future) culturally agile leader.
Cultural differences often stand in the way of project, however harnessing these sames differences is essential to progress. We hope you'll join us in 2017 in working on ways to become better at recognizing your own cultural nuances, and better at working with those with others.
One thing you can do to improve your cultural agility right now is to discover your GlobeSmart Profile, a tool which allows you to learn about your own work-style. Additionally, you’ll see how your style compares to other cultures, and get advice on how to bridge gaps and leverage differences. Go here for your free 2-week trial to GlobeSmart using the code: CULTURE2017.
We wrote this post with the help of the team at Aperian Global: A global talent development consulting firm, partnering with organizations around the world to develop their individuals, teams and leaders to thrive in a cross-border environment. They deliver facilitated training programs, consulting and online learning tools to improve cross-cultural agility, leadership development and teaming effectiveness within global corporations & universities.