The Power of Global Communication plenary at #EuroComm Conference, explored the need for greater awareness of cultural difference in international business.
The panel was chaired by Anisha Jhina, Director of Internal Communications at Mars Global Petcare and a self-confessed ‘transculturalist’. Having lived in three continents from a young age, Ms Jhina launched proceedings by speaking of her awareness of a Western-centric mindset in European and North American business environments that can thwart or limit successful intercultural relationships.
Dr Barbara Gibson has undertaken qualitative research with CEOs from 12 different firms that suggested that nearly all business cultures – not just Western ones – suffer to some extent from what she called an “ethnocentric arrogance”. Such imbalances frequently lead intercultural business relationships to fail or work at sub-optimal efficiency.
By identifying trends in her research, Dr Gibson outlined five “intercultural competencies” that successful intercultural communicators possessed:
- Adaptability: The ability to change one’s behaviour, communication style or business strategy as needed to fit the circumstances.
- Cultural self-awareness: An awareness of one’s own cultural influences, tendencies and biases, and awareness of how one’s own culture may be perceived by members of a different culture.
- Cultural sensory perception: The ability to recognize when cultural differences are in play, utilizing a range of senses to spot verbal and non-verbal cues which may differ greatly from those of one’s own culture.
- Open-mindedness: The ability to suspend judgement based on one’s own cultural biases and accept that other ways of thinking and behaving may be just as valid.
- Global perspective: Viewing the business from a transnational perspective, rather than as “domestic first, rest-of-world second.”
In addition to these competencies, Dr Gibson believes it is the communicators and CEOs with the greatest capacity to reflect and improve upon their intercultural competencies who perform best over time.
So where do can one learn intercultural competencies?
Dr Gibson believes most competencies in this area are developed informally: not by reading, but through mentoring, whether that’s with a professional mentor, or with a friend or colleague.
Through role-play and practice, a partner can hold up a mirror to the communicator, explain how they presented themselves and how that might have made them feel in that position, and provide opportunities for learning.
Dr Domna Lazidou, a leading internal communication consultant and academic, built on Dr Gibson’s presentation with her own academic research on intercultural communication. One of the dangers in the field, she cautioned, is giving too much weight to a reductive “cultural differences mentality” that differentiates people according to their nationality.
Dr Lazidou believes that a good leader must also be a good communicator, which leads on to the question of authenticity and trust. Her research has examined four senior communicators within multicultural organisations who were perceived as “authentic,” and was conducted by interviewing three groups: the leaders themselves, the people who supported them, and their HR departments.
Her findings surprised her: perceived authenticity was not a matter of cultural background or one particular style of communication, it was far more about what that leader did, and how they used their inner value system and critical self-awareness when connecting to people.
Typically these leaders spent a lot of time immersing themselves in the culture they were working in. As such, their understanding of the culture was much more nuanced than a simplistic, rules-based “cultural differences mentality.”
Dr Lazidou identified three traits that these successful communicators had:
- The stories they told were personal, but always adjusted to the people they were talking to.
- They were mindfully aware of their goals when communicating, and always learning from their mistakes.
- They never adapted further than what they felt comfortable with themselves.
So how to move forward? The panel agreed on the need to leverage competencies and redefine the role of the Communications team within companies.
By moving beyond media relations, communicators will be able to act more broadly as coaches to other areas of the organisation, including management.
Dr Barbara Gibson, Cultural Resolution
Dr Barbara Gibson is a consultant, researcher and lecturer focused on intercultural communication and global business. With more than 25 years’ experience as a business communication professional, she has worked with companies worldwide, and is a past international Chair of IABC.
Follow Barbara on Twitter:@Barb_G
Dr Domna Lazidou, Omilia Hirst
Dr Domna Lazidou is a UK-based consultant and academic who teaches, researches and advises on issues of culture, communication and engagement in multinational companies. For further information see www.omiliahirst.com