When NOT knowing the answers is the best way to succeed in global business

In a recent global survey of 572 executives nearly half of respondents cited differences in cultural traditions and different workplace norms as impeding cross-border transactions, compromising productivity and incurring significant losses for their company. If you export, manage teams with any degree of cultural diversity, manage geographically dispersed or virtual teams or outsource any of your operations abroad you will see the relevance immediately. The ability to appreciate and manage cultural diversity, a key skill for global executives today, can often feel elusive.

Let me share a story with you. My client is a UK national Head of HR in a Dutch global recruitment company whose CEO is German. Her company is experiencing rapid growth in sales but problems with above average staff turnover. She has ideas and a good business case to address the issue but her CEO is seemingly not listening. The challenge was how to deliver the message differently so that her CEO would hear it as relevant and important. The key mindset change required was a move from ‘He’s never going to change / I know what he’s like’ to ‘What don’t I know about him that will give me clues as to what I should change in my approach?’ The outcome: a clearer and much more direct recommendation from my client on the way forward, and much less of a fairly typical British understated deference, and the long-term commercial impact of attrition is now firmly on the agenda.

The catalyst for change was a series of questions exploring values and motivations. We, that is neither my client nor I as the Coach, did not have to know everything there is to know about German and UK culture. Rather we had to recognize that not knowing the answers would lead us to seeking better solutions.

How often do you hold assumptions about a situation which prevent you from understanding the other person’s viewpoint and reaching the understanding you need to take the business forward?

What questions do you need to ask yourself in your business? Here are just three to trigger your thinking:

  1. Given my own cultural background, what might I be perhaps wrongly assuming about the best way to conduct business?
  2. How might I be seen by people from different cultures and how might these perceptions influence how I am treated?
  3. What do I need to understand about the person I am interacting with?

What questions would you add to the list?

©Move Ahead Global 2012

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