Do’s and Taboos of Working Globally - Developing global people for global growth
Today’s corporate lunch rooms, airports, and business magazines are full of cautionary tales about Americans botching deals in foreign countries because they are not aware of various cultural “do’s and taboos.” While the stories tend to generalize a culture’s habits and customs, some tales have become almost legendary among business travelers.
In one story, an unfortunate American asks about his Islamic colleague’s wife (which is considered insolent), then shows the sole of his shoe (a major insult) while they sit cross-legged on the floor. A second tells of an American who humiliates herself and her Japanese colleague by pointing out his achievements at a meeting. She doesn’t know the Japanese credo: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
According to a standard competency model, there are three types of international businesspeople.
- Unconscious Incompetent. Like the individuals in the stories above, the unconscious incompetent doesn’t realize he has made a mistake, because he is unfamiliar with a culture’s customs and values.
- Conscious Incompetent. This person realizes she has erred, but does not fully understand how the situation could have been avoided.
- Conscious Competent. These trailblazing individuals learn from past mistakes and apply this knowledge to future situations. They possess a deeper understanding, and have developed a truly “global mindset.”
Developing a global mindset
If your company is involved in the global business market, then you already understand the importance of developing productive, lasting relationships with your international contacts. But what if you’ve already committed a cultural no-no?
Learning the do’s and taboos of a particular culture is a starting point, but this information alone can not provide you with the entire picture. What more does it take to be as in touch, informed, and accessible to your international contacts as possible? How can you progress from the simple dos and don’ts to a more global mindset?
According to Bob Parks, president of Strategic Enhancement Group, the solution involves “taking our clients’ awareness to a deeper level by revealing the actual reasons for the cultural differences that impact business.”
Consider the Mexican business person who becomes detached when her American guest persists in discussing business before establishing a relationship. Knowing the skipping-over-small-talk taboo helps, but learning the underlying reasons why she would take offense leads to useful insights, such as her business values and buying behaviors.
Understanding the Mexican business person’s culturally-ingrained belief that “One works to live, one doesn’t live to work,” set the stage for increasing the effectiveness of the relationship. Using this knowledge, the American will know how to open the deal more effectively, close it more successfully, or maintain it over time.
A global strategy needs global people
While developing a global structure for your organization may seem like the best way to take advantage of new market opportunities, how can you be certain that you have the people you need to make your global ventures successful?
According to Mary Beth Lamb, co-author of Do’s and Taboos for Women Around the World in Business, having the right people is key. “Companies fail when they put a global strategy and structure in place, but don’t develop global people who can make the strategy work. To develop products, services, and strategies that work worldwide, companies need employees who can operate effectively outside their own national boundaries. Nothing will slow a company down more than a workforce limited by an ethnocentric mindset and with experiences tested solely in a domestic environment.”
When you access the right global effectiveness program, the plan is straightforward. “What we have to do,” says Lamb, “is help these two groups, that is, employees with global responsibilities, and international transferees, build global mindsets and skill sets.”
The result is a globally effective workforce, one that can accommodate and adapt to differences in thinking, behaving, and communicating worldwide. The business benefit is peak performance and maximum competitiveness.