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3 tips to improve cross cultural competencies

Enthusiastic, ready to go over any challenge, you arrive in Sweden with the project to settle and work. You know that there may be some cultural differences but you are not totally aware that even if the country looks like the one you left, you will have to develop new competencies, cross cultural ones. Unfortunately, it is not something you can master by reading books or attending conferences only. It will take time!

Here are some tips to understand and start your journey.

Cross cultural competencies deal with your capacity to build relationships with people who do not share the same vision of the world as you. It implies to be able not to project your values and perceptions on your counterparts.


Be aware that your counterparts do have their perceptions and expectations

Let’s take the example of a French manager who starts working with a Swedish team. He knows about the Swedish codes at work and want to respect them but unfortunately his Swedish employees consider he applied them “the French way”. These employees understand he is a new comer and want to help him but, maybe unconsciously, want to make him clearly understand that a flat hierarchy rules here and thus express themselves in a more aggressive way that what they wanted first.

Everything falls apart. The French manager fears for his image towards his hierarchy, gets upset and takes a decision he won’t discuss anymore. Dialogue is broken.

Crosscultural competencies - Understand and be understood, perceptions and expectations - CrossRoads Intelligence

At the end of day, whereas the wishes were to be open-minded, the misunderstandings and the behaviours could hurt the self-esteem and the confidence of both the manager and the team and finally affects their performance.

What was missing? A real discussion about what everyone expected from each other and how they perceived what was going on.

When we are used to behaving with people from our culture, we do not usually have to explain anything. We know unconsciously what is expected from us. Sometimes we try to anticipate how our counterpart will react and adjust upstream our behaviours without even saying a single word. If it may lead to conflicts and misunderstandings with people from our culture, guess how explosive it could be with people from different cultures!

Let’s take a breath! Talk and ask your counterpart to do the same.


Do not do to others what you would like them to do to you, without thinking twice: What is right for you may be wrong for others

A manager logs in his company’s network in the evening to finish a task. He notices that one of his employees is working too and sends a message to thank him for his commitment. The employee answers straight ahead that he is connected to have some small talks but to work. For the first one, having his commitment recognized is very important but for the second one, priority is given to finish the task and to be able to go back to his family and his private life.

Wouldn’t you think at first: “What’s wrong with him? I am just saying Hello and thanks!”. Do not take it personally. Observe the codes and respect the local etiquette.


Willing is not acting: turn your knowledge into actions

It is clearly useful to be aware of your cultural profile (that is to say, how your culture impacts your thoughts and behaviours) and to improve your knowledge about your host country but to make this knowledge actionable is the key to your efficiency.

It is up to you to know whether you want to adapt your mind-set, your attitude and your behaviours to your new environment.


Breathe, take a break, do not judge too quickly

Think about a situation during which you got upset, bored or frustrated by one of “those Swedes” or, on the contrary, during which you were in the flow.

  • What do you know about the codes and norms of the Swedish culture? What about yours? Could what comes to your mind explains some of the emotions you felt?
  • What emotions may have felt your counterparts?
  • You cannot control the emotions your counterparts feel but you can handle your state of mind and your behaviours. How could have everyone behave to make things go better?

Focus on similarities, learn from divergences: these are complementary and will help you go much further than you think. Diversity is the key to innovation and creativity!


Do not suffer from cultural pressure, leverage cultures!

No one asks you to choose! You may be an introvert but still like to adopt extravert manner when you feel it is necessary. The same occurs with cultures. They do not determine who you are but an orientation about how to behave. Leverage them, they are your tools to make you be heard and understood by your environment and thus achieve your goals.

Instead of focusing on what you want to say, focus on how your counterparts will listen and understand your message.

“As a manager, I want my team to be engaged and commited. What makes my life complicated is that what works with my French employees does not work with the Swedish ones. I am quite lost and maybe a bit demotivated or irritated. I know as a matter of fact that both French and Swedish cultures are individualistic, that-is-to-say that every member of the team will look for a win-win situation. It may be a promotion, a salary increase, some official or private sign of gratitude from the hierarchy, some additional free time, a team building seminar… It is how people express this individualism that differs. I need, as their manager, to identify how to use those cultural preferences.”

Crosscultural competencies: Breathe and get prepared - CrossRoads Intelligence

Be indulgent with yourself

You may determine by yourself the efficiency of your actions but their relevance belong to your counterpart as it is directly linked to cultural preferences.

Breathe, do not take personally what may happen, find a catching sentence that will make everyone at ease. Here is mine: I talk a lot with my hands. No way for me to use a microphone as it would move everywhere in the air but in front of my mouth. This is not very “Swedish”. I know it. Therefore, I talk about it from the very beginning of the meeting and apologize in advance if I miss slapping someone who would come from behind. Usually it makes people laugh which allows us to start our meeting in a good mood!