ATLANTA—To work effectively across national borders, HR professionals and other business leaders need to be culturally competent. They have to be able to analyze their own cultures in order to counteract inherent bias and to recognize and resolve potential misunderstandings and conflicts with people from other cultures, advised Eric Peterson, SHRM’s manager of diversity and inclusion, and Neil Currie, an independent consultant on emerging markets.
In a Saturday seminar at the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference, the two explored the strong business case for the ability to communicate and collaborate across cultures in our global economy. Organizations increasingly have diverse leadership and management styles, and they will benefit if their leaders are skilled in intercultural decision-making.
An organization might have a good business strategy, but that strategy has to be aligned with the culture where it is going to be implemented. If it doesn’t fit the culture, it will fail. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Peterson said.
But there are stumbling blocks to achieving cultural competency. Language often is one of the biggest obstacles, influencing the way people view things, Peterson said. Geographic distance and time differences between business operations are other significant barriers, as is bias. “Stereotypes are automatically built in,” Peterson remarked.
To overcome these stumbling blocks, individuals need to analyze and understand their own culture and identify possible sources of cultural bias so they can better understand and communicate with their business partners and employees from other cultures. Analyze your own core assumptions and recognize that they are just assumptions, Peterson advised. Don’t dismiss the assumptions others have developed based on their cultures.
But what is culture? Some elements of culture are obvious and observable. These include language, clothing, music and food. Many others are not as easily observed. “Ninety percent of what makes culture is invisible,” Peterson said. These hidden aspects include cultural values, norms, beliefs, assumptions and perceptions. Taken together, these things define what people in any given culture say and do, the way they treat others and the way they behave.
Understanding these elements of culture will help business leaders develop the skills needed to operate effectively across cultures. People in all cultures share common elements of what is considered important. These cultural universals include classifying people by gender and age, appointing leaders, making jokes, and distinguishing good from bad behavior.
Not all cultures view these universal elements in the same way, however. For example, what’s funny in one culture often is not funny in another. Similarly, the United States extols individualism, whereas Japan values teamwork.
That’s why you can’t just take an American strategy or policy and export it to another culture. A U.S.-style performance evaluation system isn’t going to work in Japan.
“We might be more similar than different. But those differences are very real,” Peterson said.
John Scorza is associate editor for HR Magazine.
Essential Elements to Cultural Competence
Have the capacity for cultural self-assessment.
Be conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact.
Have institutionalized culture knowledge.
Have developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of cultural diversity.
Source: The National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University.