Last week I delivered a keynote presentation at the Texas Payroll Conference in Galveston, Texas. The group of about 500 attendees was a delight, and we had a lively dialogue about working across cultures. At the end of the presentation I read a quote from Dr. Edmund Davis of Harvard University.
“Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
The crowd went silent. I said to them that assuming Dr. Davis is right, when we work across cultures we open ourselves to opportunities we could never have dreamed of. We have the chance to build our skill set, to keep ourselves highly relevant in the workforce, and to learn new approaches to solving problems.
How do we take advantage of all of that? We need two ingredients that sound simple but take intentional work to create: Common ground and thorough knowledge of different cultural operating systems.
Let’s start with common ground. Ron Garan, NASA astronaut and speaker, discussed how people from all over the world, including cultures that used to be enemies, came together to build the International Space Station, one of the most complex pieces of hardware ever constructed. The secret, he said, was common purpose. The astronauts aboard the space station all had the same goal, to explore space and promote continued learning via scientific experiments. Through this bridge between them, they were able to overcome many cultural barriers. They put goodwill into the relationship “bank account” for when the inevitable challenges came.
I once had a client ask me why he had to do all the adjusting with his colleague from another culture.
“Isn’t he supposed to adjust too?” the man asked.
I told him that maybe the solution did not lie in that A or B dilemma, but rather in asking a different question: How can we best collaborate to achieve our common objective? My client promised to think about that.
How do we find common ground? First, you have to be willing to share of yourself in your professional environment. In almost every presentation I make nowadays, I mention that I am a musician and that I play guitar and sing in two rock bands. Inevitably, professionals in suits and ties come to me afterwards and tell me they play too! Other topics that tend to bind people together besides music are food, travel, family, sports, movies, and other hobbies.
We must also be able to consistently seek the common goal in our work. Working across language, accents, and time zones it is easy to get into an “us and them” mentality. When you have team meetings, regularly revisit the alignment of purpose on your project. When cross-cultural teams feel like they are aiming toward the same thing, they are motivated to work more collaboratively.
In addition to common ground, we must give cultural differences proper attention. Minimizing them in the name of collaboration will not help us to perform at our highest and best. We must study the operating systems of different cultures so we understand how to build bridges. How do we do that? The best way is by asking questions of our colleagues. Whenever I go to India I go prepared with a list of questions I want to ask about how the culture is changing, the impact of those changes, what are some tips for working in that culture, what that culture values, etc.
Some other great tools for studying the deeper layers of culture difference also await you.
- You can take the Intercultural Development Inventory, an assessment which measures your intercultural sensitivity and capability (https://www.highroaders.com/docs/IDI_what_you_need_to_know.pdf)
- You can also sign up for a subscription to Cultural Detective Online, a web tool that gives you information on the values of cultures from around the world (https://www.culturaldetective.com/cdonline/)
- You can sign up for a free demo with us to see how virtual training can bring your global team together (https://www.highroaders.com/free-virtual-demo/)
Most of all, if you stay curious and intentional, you will find that opportunities for common ground and studying difference are all around you.
I invite you to join me on November 12th, 2015 as I celebrate building global bridges with the Technology Association of Georgia. TAG’s International Business Society is hosting its second annual signature event, and one of my bands, The Spirit of Rush, will perform a set of classic rock to close out the evening!
Learn more and sign up here: https://s01.123signup.com/servlet/SignUpMember?PG=1521974182300&P=15219741911428812600&Info
We hope to see you there, and keep reaching out across cultures to find commonality and celebrate difference. The rewards are immeasurable.