The Key to Working in a Cross-Cultural Environment

Within the GFT Group, employees of more than 15 different cultures work together on complex international projects. Therefore, we are committed to the strategic importance of developing a cross-cultural environment. The objective is to strengthen communication and tear down the multicultural barriers that can sometimes be created. To face this challenge, we have been investing in training projects for some time now as a way to spread this cross-cultural awareness.

Any one of us who has lived in another country has countless experiences and anecdotes that illustrate cultural misunderstandings – all of which lead us to the conclusion that when communicating with another culture, merely speaking the language is not enough.

The professionals
A GFT team made up of professionals of different nationalities at the headquarters in Sant Cugat (Barcelona)

If we think about cross-cultural misunderstandings, we can say that on a personal level these moments just seem funny or simply anecdotal, and they don’t generally have an impact on us greater than teaching us valuable lessons. However, when we talk about a cross-cultural misunderstanding in a professional environment, this can lead to a disastrous negotiation, an unsuccessful sale, a lack of confidence in the person in charge, or even the loss of a business relationship with a client.

So what can we do to avoid these cultural misunderstandings? We could develop our social skills in new cultures, learning how to behave during a meeting, where and when to hold a negotiation, how to formally introduce ourselves in a professional context, etc. These cultural aspects vary according to the culture in which we may find ourselves, so it is really important to explore them in detail to guarantee a good relationship with other cultures. However, this still isn’t enough; in fact, we could say that we’d be putting the cart before the horse. To foster and strengthen a good cross-cultural base, we should start by first getting to know our own culture. This may sound obvious, but in the majority of cases it can be harder than it seems.

Leaving Stereotypes Behind

As a matter of habit, we generate stereotypes that help us justify an instance of failed communication. For example: a Norwegian could say “Spanish people are not particularly good at planning” or “the Irish are bad listeners” What about our culture? What are we like? It’s important to recognize that these types of assessments are made when comparing others to our own culture. Thus, when a Norwegian says that “Spanish people are not particularly good at planning,” what they really mean is that the way the Spanish people plan, differs from what is done in their own culture. However, if the assessment is made by a Latin American, they may not find that Spanish people are not good at planning.

When you are in and of a culture, it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture. – Erin Meyer *

It’s often the case that we are not aware of our own culture. In her book “The Culture Map,” Erin Meyer states that people who live in the same culture are only able to detect regional or even individual differences. However, the moment they come in contact with another culture, they start becoming aware of their own.
When we become aware of our own culture, it’s important that, before acting, we try to understand the cultural environment in which we mean to communicate, delegate, or negotiate. This is the only way to guarantee that our cross-cultural adventure will end successfully.

When interacting with someone, try to watch more, listen more and speak less. Listen before you speak, learn before you act. – Erin Meyer *

By getting to know ourselves better, reflecting on how we communicate and how we behave during a negotiation or a presentation, we can find common points with the other culture, which will lead us to achieve our goals in a satisfactory way. In other words, if we look for a WIN-WIN outcome in the communication between two cultures, and if we’re able to use the knowledge we have about the other person’s culture as well as our own to ensure a better understanding between all parties, success is guaranteed.

Erin Meyer (credit Kim Durdant-Hollamby KDH Creative)
Erin Meyer (credit Kim Durdant-Hollamby KDH Creative)

*Erin Meyer is a professor at INSEAD, one of the leading international business schools. Her work focuses on how the world’s most successful managers navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a global environment. She offers cutting-edge insight and practical strategies to improve the effectiveness of projects that span the globe.

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