3 most common mistakes when working
interculturally

The Economist Business Unit reports 90% of leading executives from 68 countries name multicultural leadership as their top management challenge, with 70% of international ventures failing due to cultural differences. Globalisation is not slowing down. Today’s world desperately needs us to develop the capability to work interculturally. While some people find it easier, there is still a high number of those who struggle to succeed in multi-cultural situations. There are many reasons behind that. Hoverer among the most common ones I list three:

  • Ignoring cultural differences.

Call it high self-confidence or self-esteem, ignorance, a superiority complex or anything else. I have witnessed expats, managers, and executives moving abroad and expecting everyone to follow them. Being settled in a foreign environment, deeply convinced they have been sent to sort things out their way. The only problem is that their way worked very well in their home country, the environment they were familiar and comfortable with. Applying the same communication style, motivating people the same way, and referring to their cultural values may take them nowhere. Is it easy to adapt to other cultures? Perhaps not. However the first key to success is acknowledging the differences and considering adapting to the new environment. 

  •  Evaluating others through your own perspective.

We are all human beings making judgements immediately based on what we see. We compare what we see to what we know. What we experience in a multicultural environment is far from what we know though! Of course things will always look worse than what you are used to just because it will be different! Neither better nor worse. DIFFERENT. People work differently, communicate differently (and I don’t mean a different language only), think differently, and have different values. A very frequent reason for under-evaluating such differences is a deep belief that in the end we all have the same goals and objectives. We do. However ways of getting there may differ. Regardless of if you are on an international assignment as an expat, you happen to work in an international team, or you have a remit to negotiate with foreign suppliers; you want to reach your goal. Adjusting to others without losing your identity will help you function effectively, be more satisfied with those interactions and ultimately succeed.

  • Assuming too quickly.

Erin Meyer in “The Culture Map” presents cross-cultural communication in such an interesting and complex way. On one hand she gives such a great insight into that subject, on the other hand she opens people’s eyes to possible misinterpretations and misunderstandings when communicating in a cross-cultural environment. Looking at others, our conversations and interactions from our own cultural perspective often leads us to easy, quick and comfortable conclusions. A lack of knowledge of specific cultures encourages us to make judgements and assume we are understood and thus things will get done. How surprised we are as soon as it turns out it was only what we thought or rather hoped for. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, NLP creators, give a great definition of effective communication “The meaning of the communication is the response you get.” When it comes to applying this definition to the cross-cultural context it is way better to wait for the final outcome of our communication rather than relying on ‘on the spot’ reactions which may be misleading.  
Here they are, the most common mistakes we make while working interculturally. The list is endless though. The multicultural context brings a lot of benefits, but it is also packed with plenty of potential challenges. The capability to function effectively in such an environment is not inborn, it can be successfully developed. The first key step to do this is to acknowledge the reality of a complex globalised world giving us a lot of multicultural opportunities and warning of potential challenges and needs to overcome them elegantly.