Building a bridge of dialogue and understanding

Why it's important to understand different cultures in business

Many of us work with people from different cultures either within an organisation or across physical borders. But we do not have the education to build, nurture and sustain a bridge of dialogue and understanding. When relationships with our teams, business partners or customer base falter, the entire business suffers. We are somehow expected to get on – perhaps because in most global businesses everyone speaks English. But using a common language is only the tip of the iceberg. Like with any building work, we need tools that help us create a bridge that can withstand the natural ups and downs of everyday business and life.

Why build a bridge
When we find ourselves part of the dominant culture within an organisation, it’s easy to dismiss others from different backgrounds, their needs, how they work or what makes them tick. This translates into a lack of understanding – or the will to understand – which in turn alienates the “outsiders”. It creates a culture of ‘them and us”. For example, in the past, I have worked for an Austrian company which is an international brand but run like a local business with very limited sensitivity towardsthe many different cultures that make up its workforce. In the end, when employees feel they are not being heard or valued, they will leave. But before that happens, it’s likely that tensions will escalate within teams and turn the work environment into a toxic one. 

How to build a bridge
Both host and guest need to be willing to openness, dialogue. As Stephen Covey says “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. For instance, if there is a great business opportunity in the Middle East, there is an even greater opportunity for learning how to speak (and I’m not necessarily suggesting learning to speak Arabic), so that the Middle Eastern partners/ customers can listen. There is a focussed intention that is beyond the business transaction. A willingness to honour the values whilst establishing trust. It goes without saying that an understanding of the local culture and values is essential e.g. as a recognition of and respect for the local culture, a western woman should not seek to shake hands with a local man in public in most Middle Eastern countries.

Who should build the bridge
We tend to think that just because the predominant culture of an organisation is one thing, say Anglo-Saxon, then everyone else should adhere to that culture. The point is for each party to extend a metaphorical hand in an effort to build a bridge, to start a relationship based on trust and common interest. Understanding each other’s differences and accepting that we do not always share the same values are the keys to a strong relationship across businesses. We can’t change others, only ourselves. If each person decides that the dialogue will start with them, then they will be part of the building blocks of a strong business.

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