Building Cultural Competence Isn’t an Event; It’s a Process

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Jun 24, 2014
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ORLANDO, FLA—“Culture is established in our brains at a very young age, but cultural understanding is not really intuitive,” said Mercedes Naficy D’Angelo, director of business solutions for the consultancy Cultural Awareness International Inc., during her June 24 session, “Global Competency: Success in Emerging Markets,” at the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition.

“When we’re talking about culture, we’re talking in generalizations—the middle of the bell curve—not stereotypes,” she said. And when it comes to conducting business in emerging markets, such as countries in Africa, one must understand the effects a country’s key cultural values will have on business success.

For example, at a macro level, cultural differences affect how companies must approach sales and marketing, recruiting and selection, customer relationship management, product development, and project management. On a micro level, cultural nuances should be reflected in rewards and recognition programs, negotiation processes, team dynamics and training—even task-oriented activities like scheduling meetings and teleconferences or e-mailing.

“Business has to be conducted in ways that a country’s culture supports,” she emphasized. “And remember that working virtually is completely different—and harder—than working face-to-face” when it comes to accommodating cultural differences. “Employee engagement and lack of understanding of decision-making [parameters], for example, are more difficult to address, but bridging these cultural gaps is what HR must focus on.”

Her client, Texas-based oil and gas company Anadarko—not unfamiliar with emerging markets—is navigating these choppy waters as it works to establish itself in Mozambique. To be successful, it is working to develop its cultural competence by understanding the differences between Americans and Mozambicans within the context of three challenging areas: Building integrity and trust, focusing on relationships versus tasks, and understanding the nuances of decision-making styles under steep hierarchical versus flat egalitarian systems.

“It is very important in many parts of the world to act with the highest ethical standards, honor promises and obligations, and to be accountable for your actions,” said Naficy D’Angelo. “In other parts of the world, these are not important at all.”

Relationships Before Business

Still, she noted, nearly 85 percent of the world’s cultures reflect a strong propensity for relationship building before conducting business. “It’s actually disrespectful in African and Middle Eastern cultures to talk about business before you’ve developed a relationship with your potential business partners,” she said. “In fact, personal networks are at the core of Mozambican business; once you enter ‘inner circles,’ doors open.”

Of course, that sort of relationship building is highly dependent on using the appropriately accepted communication style. “Communication styles differ from blunt and direct to respectful and indirect,” she said. “When we force our way on others, we end up cutting them off, and no one likes that. Consequently, it erodes relationship potential.”

Likewise, it’s very hard to know what “yes” means in many cultures with indirect communication styles, she added. “Sometimes it means ‘maybe’; sometimes it means ‘we’ll think about it.’ ”

In any case, it’s important to build trust, rapport and credibility to successfully conduct business around the globe, she said. “In the U.S., the trust piggy bank is usually full from the start” and is only depleted when distrustful or deceitful actions serve as “withdrawals” from that piggy bank. “But in most of the world, we have to remember that we have to make many deposits into the trust piggy bank” to solidify credible, trusting relationships.

Human resources can help pave the way for business successes in multinational environments by developing a strategy and process for building sustainable global competency throughout the organization, she said.

“What happens after [cultural awareness] training?” she asked, noting that ongoing resources, continuous dialogue and program measurement are needed for global business success.

“Culture is a starting point for understanding behavior, but it’s not the end point,” she said. “Companies need to address expatriates’ cycles of adaptation” each time they enter and exit a different country and experience the inherent cultural shocks. “People need to talk about what they’ve learned and experienced.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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