Cross-Cultural Competency

After waiting an hour in the heat of Libya’s sun, two American salesmen give up and return to their hotel angry and spitting insults at the government employees they were supposed to meet. They booked the next flight home and the massive deal came to nothing. The Libyan government never understood why the Americans had not turned up and the deal eventually went to a Turkish company.

In today’s global marketplace, the chances of losing business due to cultural misunderstandings run high. The above example perfectly illustrates how a lack of cross-cultural competency negatively impacts business abroad. Did the Americans not know that in Libya it is the norm to be late? Did the Libyans not realise that the Americans would have expected them on time? Both parties were at fault yet also blameless at the same time. A little cultural awareness would however have radically improved the outcome.

Culture can no longer be taken lightly by businesses. None of us are exempt from dealing with foreigners anymore. Our businesses and personal lives have become more unpredictable and to guarantee success we have to adapt. Let’s be clear culture is not just about how people shake hands and exchange business cards. You could memorise a book of do’s and don’ts for India and still experience confusion and difficulty working with the Indians. It is about learning to survive in the globalized maze of modern business.

The first step to cross-cultural competency is to rid oneself of assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes. Modern business calls for modern thinking; thinking where no one is at fault and where people have differing priorities and values. Accepting that we do things in different ways and adapting behaviours to this is 80% of the battle won.

Having said all this why do businesses nowadays not prioritise cross-cultural competency training? Part of the reason is that it is still seen as a soft-skill and not as important as hard-skills like engineering or IT. Whereas one can quantity whether they have learnt IT skills, how can a business quantify if an employee has become more culturally competent? Businesses favour measurable results, and in the case of cross-cultural competency the true value may not get quantified until too late, such as when two of their sales people walk away from an important meeting with the Libyan government!

Companies that incorporate cross-cultural competency into their core values always come out on top. Not only do they lower their risk of lost revenue, but they also gain a new set of strategies and a clear perspective of what is offered by other cultures. Globalization has completely reshaped the flow of information, goods and services and it is crucial to view the business world differently. Rather than view successful cultural skills only as a means to prevent lost revenue, smart decision makers and employers emphasize the personal benefits of cross-cultural competency.