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Cultural Detective: Avoid cross-cultural Trial by Fire

Detecting the nuances of a new place and being able to deduce the underlying cultural values or deeply held beliefs

Published: Oct 4, 2010

Having attended Thunderbird, most of us are interested and maybe particularly intrigued by cultural difference. We’ve lived, worked and taken holidays all over the world. Some of us, including me, thrive on the adventure and challenge of discovering differences and similarities across the globe. Detecting the nuances of a new place and being able to deduce the underlying cultural values or deeply held beliefs can mean the difference between successful product launches, valuable client/vendor/employee relationships, or money-losing failures.

With our global economy currently suffering, what is the real impact for the individual and for the organization of understanding and being more culturally competent? In a 2010 study conducted by the Hydrogen Group, 60 percent of respondents (primarily highly paid professionals) indicated that the economic downturn had no impact on their willingness to live and work abroad.

The report indicates how, “for the mid- to senior-level professional demographic, international experience is a key ingredient for personal and career development. For them, working abroad is not a means of escaping recession; rather it is a proactive career and life choice motivated by the desire to fast-track their careers, have a better quality of life and further their personal development.”

Clearly, there is both professional and personal motivation to develop one’s cross-cultural competence. But is this motivation both driven and rewarded by industry and at the organizational level? A “high-potential” friend of mine was recently moved abroad on a highly paid international assignment by her employer so that she could develop key corporate relationships and network her way up the “ladder.”

Presumably, being at corporate headquarters would give her the “bridge” to share her ground-breaking business strategies and catapult her career. Cultural training provided by the multinational organization consisted of handing her a book on living and working in the new country.

Armed with her new knowledge of the history of the country, its economics and major tourist sites, she was ill-prepared for what greeted her in the workplace. The book had prepared her with some relevant knowledge, but not about how to be immersed in the foreign culture. So, effectively, the company submitted her to cross-cultural trial by fire.

Similarly, her new co-workers had not been prepared to welcome and work with their new teammate. As an intelligent, high-potential employee, she asked many questions of natives of the culture about interpersonal and corporate dynamics in many different contexts. But the political maneuvering of various team members left her feeling as an unwanted intruder, and ill-prepared to play the game on unfamiliar territory.

She needed to understand the “playground” and its rules better in order to succeed in this new culture. In the end, she left her international assignment early and sought a new employer – an expensive lesson we’ve all heard or encountered too many times.

By teaching her a simple process for effectively analyzing some of her specific cross-cultural business situations, she could have leveled the playing field and broken through some of the negative stereotypes that she formed during her one-year assignment.

By working with real-world critical incidents, the Cultural Detective® process is designed to develop both culture-general and culture-specific competence, so it would have been an ideal tool for my friend. The Cultural Detective® process asks that you re-capture the critical business incident in a fashion similar to what a detective might do: take out bias or judgment, leaving only the facts of what each party involved either said or did in the incident.

Next, the process asks you to consider each person’s intentions, the motivations behind what they did or said. By assuming the possibility of positive intent, one begins to feel more open to consider what the other person may be valuing or what might have motivated their behavior.

Understanding the values that drive our and others’ behavior allows us to more effectively implement productive and effective solutions that not only bridge the cultural gap but use differences as assets. Using this process in a structured manner over time, with many different critical situations, develops individual and organizational intercultural competence.

In the case of my friend and her company, a small but regular investment in building her and the organization’s cultural competence could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This article will be the first of a series of intercultural competency stories, through which we will aim to increase readers’ awareness and ability to work productively across cultures.

Kris Bibler graduated from Thunderbird in 1989. She is based in Zurich, Switzerland, where she is the Business Development Manager for Cultural Detective®. Since graduation she has worked in sales/marketing roles for top organizations such as DHL Airways, Logistics Management, Inc. and Automatic Data Processing (ADP). After working in the United States domestic diversity training field for a year, Kris began utilizing her 20-plus years of sales and marketing experience to launch the robust global business solutions in the Cultural Detective® series to large organizations around the world. Her passion is to help organizations and their employees gain access to the rich intercultural learning that they need to transform their ethnocentric mindsets and structures in order to fully support and capitalize on the rapidly changing global workforce and the global economy.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the research journal of Thunderbird Global School of Management]

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