How to Create Cultural Awareness in Business


Working for a global business is "like working for the United Nations," writes executive coach Gill Corkindale. Diplomacy, tact, understanding and sensitivity are all important aspects of cultural awareness because culture can be a "fulcrum of conflict." Train your employees and managers to identify and deal with possible sources of conflict and misunderstanding in multicultural work settings.

Teach your employees to understand different cultural perspectives. Conflicts in multicultural settings arise when people talk past one another or fail to understand nuances. Corkindale cites an example where an American employee's overly direct demeanor resulted in his Chinese colleague completely closing off communications. Your staff should spot these types of simmering conflicts early and bring them to the attention of management for resolution.

Stop centralizing decisions at your home base and recognize that globalization is not a one-way street, Thunderbird School of Management professor Mary Teagarden told business journalist Glenn Rifkin. Build value in your global operations by encouraging your managers to recognize, embrace and take advantage of cultural differences. Learn to adapt product designs and marketing campaigns to fit local cultures: for example, a soft drink commercial for an American audience should be adapted for an Indian or Chinese audience, both for language and for content.

Consider staff exchanges to increase cultural awareness. Send some of your U.S. managers to China or India, and bring managers and key employees from your offshore locations to your home base, even if it is for short assignments. This exposure to different cultural settings will help your worldwide managers broaden their focus -- in effect, become trained as international diplomats, according to Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman.

Establish a mentoring program. With the emergence of China, India and Brazil as the most promising growth markets of the future, managers at all levels of the organization must know how to deal with cultural differences. Senior executives with on-the-ground experience in overseas settings can mentor other managers in how to navigate the complexities of international management. Teagarden suggests that managers should have experience in managing virtual teams first before being transferred overseas.

Train employees to understand the decision-making processes of international partners. This comes in especially handy during challenging cross-cultural negotiations, writes former "Time" magazine correspondent Andrew Rosenbaum. For example, American managers might decide independently while their Japanese counterparts seek consensus. Chinese negotiators might make and expect multiple offers and counteroffers to reach the best possible deal. They may also expect their American counterparts to correctly interpret nonverbal communications methods, such as silence and gestures.

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