Collaborating Cultures

I was in China last week, helping an organization in building commitment and alignment in their management teams. I assisted their CEO in his desire to create a transformation agenda for the company. This was exciting stuff, not only because of the topic but because it involved trying to get a number of different nationalities within the organization to collectively contribute and share their ideas and concerns.

I loved being back in China. It has now been almost 15 years since I was last in Beijing, and I must say I didn’t recognize anything. The airport is new, all the ring roads are new and certainly the commercial district I was in didn’t exist 15 years ago. Like many others parts of Asia and the Middle East I witnessed massive change.

The interesting thing was that just by being back in China for a few days, flashes of the language started coming back to me. I had originally tried to learn the language when I was posted there but I never succeeded and only mastered some survival Mandarin. My inability to learn the language (and don’t even ask about my Vietnamese!!!), discouraged me from ever fully grasping trying to learn Urdu. While I understand most of what is being said, here I am ten years later and I still don’t speak enough Urdu to buy me a chapatti. Shame on me!

The fun in collaborating with different nationalities is the differences in getting them to work, share, express their views, learn and disagree with each other. So from my experience, this is what works in facilitating a diverse group of nationalities:

Build a Relationship
Spend one-on-one time with people prior to getting them all together. This helps you to understand their perspectives and learn how they see the world. Build a relationship in which individual members trust you and you can utilize that trust during group sessions.

Create a Shared Need
Spend a considerable amount of time on creating an equal playing field in which all participants agree what the issue is and create a shared need of what changes are required.

Build a Safe Environment
Most Asians, (except my Desi brethren) feel uncomfortable in speaking up in large forums, certainly if the ‘big bosses’ are present. It is therefore important to create smaller groups in which people can share their thoughts and opinions.

Give Equal Talk Time
Stop people that speak too much and allow the less talkative individuals to express their views. Give everyone an opportunity, you will be surprised to find that pushing people to speak up will help them not only gain confidence, but might also produce some fresh ideas and perspectives.

This approach worked well last week and the team truly only enjoyed their experience. They were not only able to agree on the content of their transformation agenda but also were committed to its implementation.

What techniques would you use to get people from different cultural backgrounds to speak up???

– Paul Keijzer


One thought on “Collaborating Cultures

  1. I feel a major factor to the difference in (Desi) people’s workplace behaviors i.e. their inability or unwillingness to stand up to the moment, be confident and speak their mind is the cultural indoctrination as well!

    For the Asian culture, specifically within India and Pakistan, the central unit of social interactions is the family and that too in most cases a model of joint-family where parents, brothers and sisters live together in the same homes or very close proximity from each other – even after marriage and having children. Parents in such families continue to play an overarching and authoritative role under the premise of respect for elders and so the capacity of most young men and women coming out of these families, at even mature ages, is inhibited from being openly expressive of their true views let alone the ability to think for themselves, independently. This is despite the fact that a lot of them study well and gain high level skills, yet in terms of their social and public skills they usually need grooming, to alter their precast natural behaviors into progressive and confident professional selves, good for the workplace.

    I also feel this is a major factor that attracts socially finessed people from strong and reputable institutions alone to good companies and in turn those companies prefer to focus their energies for finding talent in select (credible) places alone.

    Soft skills are a big issue for Pakistan and Asia towards quality human resource provisioning, in the now and near future as Asia grows aggressively.


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