Why the Best Intentions Can Leave the Deepest Scars in a Global Corporate Environment

Even the best intentions can backfire. As if that weren't frustrating enough, sometimes such negative fallout could easily have been avoided with a working knowledge of cultural intelligence.

Consider the story I'm going to share with you this month. It's about one man's strategy to solve a cultural challenge created by a merger between his North American engineering firm and a Chinese manufacturing plant, and it's a microcosm of issues people in global business face on a daily basis.

We'll call the man "Kevin." And despite Kevin's efforts to do what he considered to be the right thing, he still got stung. Now, he's unfortunately receiving the cold shoulder from the Chinese team. Instead of earning their trust, he's given them a major reason to trust neither him nor the company's entire U.S. operation.

When it comes to global teamwork, great intentions simply aren't enough.
Although I've known Kevin for years, we've never officially worked together. But when the merger went through between his Southeastern United States firm and the Beijing manufacturing plant, he turned to me for help.

Kevin is a man who has not traveled overseas much, yet for much of his career he's worked for multinational companies. When his current company became involved in the China merger, vast cultural differences soon surfaced. Some were much more complicated and noticeable than others, and they led to costly delays and mistakes.

Recognizing that everybody associated with the merger was treading uncharted international waters, Kevin contacted me to request a proposal for Professional Passport to work with his company and help executives and other employees navigate these global challenges. I told him my firm typically does not prepare proposals without first having a conversation with involved stakeholders to fully understand the roots of those challenges.

Kevin responded that it was too early for him to introduce me to his leadership team, but I forwarded him some valuable materials and spent one hour on the phone with Kevin and the U.S. vice president of manufacturing, who understood the power of cultural intelligence.

What Kevin did next is very typical of how linear, solution driven Westerners tend to behave: He recommended that his CEO hire Professional Passport to help remove some of the tensions between the American and Chinese teams that were now expected to work seamlessly together.

Kevin's CEO liked the potential he saw in such a solution and presented the idea to his counterpart in China. The idea backfired, though, when the Chinese leader took offense at not being included in the decision-making process. That leader rejected the U.S. firm's idea and suggested that his team sort out its problems on its own -- even though those problems lie in adaptive solutions that the Chinese leader is unable to pinpoint, not the technical ones to which he naturally reverts.

Learn from your mistakes and avoid them next time.
In this specific case, instead of taking his proposed solution to his American CEO, Kevin should have initiated a private conversation with members of the Chinese team and engaged them in a conversation about the cultural struggles employees were encountering. By asking questions of the Chinese, he might have learned more about their views on the issue and determined how receptive the Beijing crew would be to outside assistance.

If Chinese leaders had shown interest, Kevin could have offered to facilitate the meeting with Professional Passport while being discreet about a possible partnership. This would have indicated to the Chinese leader that Kevin was empathetic with the China team and demonstrated he had the interest of the organization as a whole in mind.

Instead, and this inadvertently, Kevin looked to the Chinese as if he attempted to be the savior of the company to his own boss while portraying leaders of the China operation as lacking initiative and resources. It was the wrong move as the Chinese, for centuries, have maintained a strong concept of pride in self and don't like to lose face.

Commit to a culture of cultural intelligence.
This small misstep in handling what could have been perceived as a smart and time saving initiative will wind up costing Kevin's company dearly in time and dollars.

Such missed opportunities are common among multinational companies with employees who, while seeing the value of investing in cultural intelligence, have a hard time adapting their behaviors while tempering their own ideas of how to achieve success.

Most business executives consider cultural intelligence something required to gain market share or resolve problems with international vendors once they occur. Few understand the need for a high degree of cultural intelligence when trying to influence and gain the trust of internal partners who don't share the same cultural backgrounds, expectations and values.

In order to push forward projects of any type within a highly diverse team, key members of the initiative -- including those in multiple geographic locations and time zones -- must demonstrate humility, empathy and trust. It is however essential to recognize that for great intentions to not backfire, all those traits must be first analyzed in a complex cross-cultural light.