The Limitations of Culture
Increasingly, people have identified “cross-cultural skills” as a core skill needed for success in the 21st century. Accordingly, university educational programs respond to develop cultural awareness skills in a way that stands independent of a definition of culture. Knowing, for instance, that the Japanese tend to be privately aggressive, group-orientated, relationally-inclined while having a sense of minimal speaking space is supposed to help someone understand why a Japanese business team generally comes as a team, stands very close to one another and the other negotiating parties, and will negotiate over tea. Yet, culture broadly speaking has been understood by what we believe, what we do, and what we make. To engage a different culture effectively, one must be willing to question one’s own assumptions, reflect carefully on the group’s orientation towards itself and others, and discuss process.
We work better cross-culturally than we think we do, particularly when we consider cross-cultural engagement to involve people with different beliefs, actions and artifacts. Many common jokes exist because of relevant cultural expectations. A well-known joke in engineering characterizes a swing or a plane according to the different disciplines involved in creating a product. My favorite is the structural engineer seeing the plane as an I-Beam. Yet, somehow we manage to consider the people in front of us on various teams. We might commit to the group based on a desire to preserve relationships, to just get things done, or a mixture of both.
Every team has a way of setting up an in-group and an out-group, almost by feature of necessity. Certain people will be on the team. Other people are not on the team. Various people receive insider privileges owing to relevant access to power. Yet, I am reminded of a story from John Maxwell. An American asked a Japanese colleague to identify the most important language in business today. The American expected to hear “English” yet the Japanese businessman answered “The language my customer speaks.” Carefully reflecting on both in-team dynamics and relationships with external persons forms an essential aspect of reflective process when working cross-culturally.
Process can be an overlooked dimension of group life. Taking time out to ask the question “How are things going?” on various scales helps clarify key differences blocking group cohesion and effectiveness. We can be tempted to operate on auto-pilot according to our dominant modes even when all signals alert us to something being amiss. Learning to pay attention to these signals helps us make changes midstream. Very rarely do we encounter linear, step-wise processes, especially when we work in the construct of design. Things iterate, people morph, situations change.
While I am far from an expert about modern teaming, I cannot think of any clear situations of truly homogeneous teams at work in the world today. My own vantage point may be constrained, yet it is not clear to me whether the world functions by sending a team of New York businessmen to Moscow for short-term negotiation. Most of the examples I can think of deal with travel within a particular multi-national corporation. Rather, what I tend to see are short-term and extended-term compositions of people from just about every imaginable background under the sun. These teams must come together in a way that allows them to create a operating group culture of their own. Negotiation and flexibility remain key. But superficial ideas of who stands where only touch the surface of the skills required to engage effectively within this space.