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In today’s age of globalization, geographic borders are becoming practically virtual. However, another type of boundary remains, even more subtle and crucial, often ignored or neglected: an intercultural one.  We struggle to know and understand what makes us similar. This idea of interculturalism allows us to share in the richness of everyone in order to have a real openness to others.

We also encounter interculturalism in international companies, which provides real strength. Intercultural competency is characterized by three points: emotional, cognitive and behavioural. It leads to the essential notion of “transcultural adaptation”, resting on the three pillars that are important for individuals in their professional activity: diagnosis, relationship and confrontation. Here is an example to understand the importance of good interculturalism management in an international company.

A German supplier, “Company  X” has enjoyed good top management relations with a US client, “Company Y” but everything goes wrong at the level of engineers and middle managers. The main problem is that German engineers believe that they can do a fine job with one German engineer as opposed to 25 US engineers. For them, all engineers are top quality. A German engineering degree requires 7 years of study and only 4 in the US. They think that the US engineering profession is designed where there are a few top quality engineers at the top of the pyramid and a lot of low quality engineers at the bottom.  The Americans don’t believe that German engineers can be so clever. Plus, they are uncommunicative and are short tempered at meetings. There are also cost implications because US engineers are lower quality so they are cheaper. German engineers are all high quality and therefore more expensive.

Germans manage according to the plan. Once a plan is created and agreed they go into automatic mode where
they implement the plan to an efficient timetable. Each engineer is entirely responsible for carrying out his part of the plan. Germans trust the system and the expertise which allows them to trust their colleagues without constant meetings: A fine-tuned silent machine! Americans manage plans by constantly controlling progress through a series of daily, even hourly meetings in which all involved discuss problems and brainstorm solutions. In this way they can reassure themselves that the project is going well: the chaos of an organic process!

As a consequence, the German engineers refuse to attend meetings as they think they are a waste of time and money.They complained that they could not be competitive in this type of environment because all the “human stuff” cost unnecessary time and money. Their motivation was gone and they refused to go to any more meetings. Arguing with the Americans was rampant.

How did this company transform the frictions of cultural misunderstanding into synergy?  What tools did they use to develop the skills of persuasion for their employees and create functioning relationships based on confidence with their foreign partners? Because they needed to be helped, they called in a company specialized in training and coaching in intercultural relationships and international development.

At the end of a tailor-made 2-day workshop, the German engineers learned how their American colleagues function and how to adapt their way of thinking so that the project could restart on more solid ground and become a success.

In order to avoid this type of problem, it is necessary to understand the importance of working in an intercultural environment. That is why some companies offer intercultural training to their employees. In addition to language mastery, specialized training programs help companies to acquire the skills necessary to be able to self-evaluate: what does it mean to “be French”, “be German”, “be American”, etc? These training programs provide the tools necessary to know and understand the cultural differences in business situations in order to work in a multicultural team. Companies can use this intercultural knowledge in their professional work and interactions and avoid misunderstandings and conflicts stemming from human interactions with people from different countries and cultures. Finally, the value of intercultural training also helps companies limit the risk of failure for expatriates and/or international business relations, which can be very expensive.

Author: Emmanuel Fayad
Emmanuel worked for 15 years in the software publishing industry at an international level before founding TMTS, a consultancy and training center assisting companies to develop their strategies for international development through bespoke training programs

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