Bridging Cultures: International Pragmatism
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Creating change and implementing new processes are never easy endeavors. They almost always come with resistance and obstacles. When you combine those efforts across cultures, countries and languages, it can be downright overwhelming – but don’t despair, there are ways to succeed.
I have had the great privilege of working with colleagues across 4 continents and more than 20 countries. Generally speaking, employees come to work to do a good job, they want to succeed and are open to new ways of working.
The problem arises when those changes are seemingly pushed upon an organization and they don’t understand what the value is or believe in the change. This is further compounded when cultural or language barriers are present. It is not uncommon, especially in the US, for an organization to lack the cultural sensitivity and understanding the impact of change can have on their sister companies.
In a previous life, I was part of a high performing team that was instituting a global change that included a new vision, a new way of thinking & working, as well as a new language to discuss it. One of the interesting mistakes is that all of the acronyms and references were completely lost to those outside of the US. For instance, the use of the term, “Sweet 16”,(NCAA March Madness) simply did not translate…think about it for a moment. I kept hearing, "Jay, what does Sweet 16 mean?" Another example was the use of a company specific term "one best operator". Did you know that in many languages, there are many terms to define an operator, rather than implied context? As I traveled around to help train and implement, these questions came up constantly, derailing the focus & sowing doubt in the goals.
The interesting thing is that this was just the language; the start of change management. The examples above don’t even cover what we needed them to do!
So, what are some basic tips that you can use to avoid these mistakes and drive lasting, sustainable change and improvement? Firstly, you need to include more of your stakeholders from the beginning, seek feedback and include it in your development. What if we had shared the language early on in the process? Secondly, be with the teams in the country and listen to their needs and understanding, don’t just push an agenda.
And in my experience, be pragmatic!
Just because the organization has a goal it doesn’t mean that your ears and eyes should be closed. Pragmatism allows you to build on the intent of the change and not necessarily the exact details of how it is done locally. Embracing and leveraging the cultural diversity, building on local strengths and building relationships goes a long way. And you never know…you may find that you will be bringing back great strategies and processes from abroad to share back home. One thing for sure, is you will build some valuable relationships and friendships – I know I have and I’m so much better for it.