In a world where technology makes it as easy to talk to someone on the opposite side of the globe as the opposite side of the room, Americans are getting more global experience than ever, working abroad more and taking an active role in understanding cultural diversity.
However, there’s still a lot to work on, said Melissa Lamson, president and CEO of Lamson Consulting. There’s a marked lack of cultural awareness in U.S. leadership.
Lamson spoke with Chief Learning Officer about the state of cultural awareness in U.S. leaders and what they can do to develop a keener understanding and spread it throughout their companies.
What is causing this general lack of cultural understanding?
I wouldn’t blame the leaders themselves. It’s not intentional insensitivity. The U.S. is still very isolated. We’re still very independent economically. Our level of daily awareness is very U.S.-centric. We don’t have [enough] international news. We don’t have enough vacation time to get out and see the world. Our country is so big we prioritize going from the east to the west, not leaving the country, when we do go away. And because we are a relatively successful and rich country, we assume people want to do business with us and want to adapt to us, so we don’t really consider that we could do better if we adapted to them.
How can leaders can spread cultural awareness throughout their company? Can you give an example?
[There’s] a leader at SuccessFactors who was very culturally aware. His team is about to start projects with France, India and a few other locations, so he decided it was very important for everyone to understand how people work differently.
He decided he wanted to have in-person training with me. I have a model with four cultural dimensions: time, thought patterns, communication (indirect or direct), and hierarchy (individual and collectivism). I teach these, talk about what cultures fall in what dimensions, give specific examples, and I ask people for their stories. I put it all together in some case studies, and I have them do an analysis. People get the chance to role-play, analyze, learn these dimensions and apply them. That’s one way of doing it.
Another way: Make it a topic so that when you’re speaking in public or when you’re announcing a new marketing campaign, you specifically call out global mindset or cultural diversity so that people are aware of it.
After a leader gains cultural understanding, what’s the next step?
The key is to constantly remind people about how to communicate with customers. We need to suggest that people be sensitive and use skills that work successfully across cultures.
When I know people are indirect or direct communicators, and I have a mixed group, I use multiple words to describe something. I’ll say, ‘This is a critical problem,’ and then ‘It’s a “challenging issue.” ’ I’ll use a light version [‘challenging issue’] for the indirect cultures who like harmony, and I’ll say ‘critical problem’ for those who are more direct communicators.
Have you ever seen people from cultures with clashing ideas compromise and work together effectively?
[Germans and Americans] have very opposite thought patterns about how to approach a project. Americans like to talk about the idea, start working on it and figure it out as they go along, and Germans prefer to have it all sorted out how to do it before they actually start working on it.
I was working with Porsche. They were coming out with a new Cayenne. The German and American teams came together, and at first they were in conflict. They had this big discussion and realized they could leverage those unique strengths so they could quickly get results, make decisions and at the same time make sure those decisions were high quality by bringing in more analysis and more research. Both sides saw the value in what each was bring to the table.
How does a leader deal with these culture clashes internally vs. with a client?
They need to educate themselves about what is true. People understand individual personality now — there’s the Myers-Briggs test, therapy, etc. — and people understand organizational culture because they work for the organization so they know what’s appropriate and normal. What people don’t really know is the impact of people from different cultural backgrounds working together.
It’s important to get savvy not only about individual personality and organizational culture, but about the national culture and how that influences the way people make decisions with customers, make presentations and so on. They need to read books, get international news, watch foreign films, and bring in consultants who know about intercultural communication. Then take that knowledge to heart, and put that cap on during meetings to think: Is this a clash of personalities or a clash of cultural values? It gives them another point of analysis.