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Navigating Across Cultures

Expanding Relational Agility

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Have you ever had an encounter with someone who didn’t speak your language, yet you still felt an instantaneous nonverbal connection? Perhaps it was a smile that revealed an openness or a glint in the eyes that didn’t possess an agenda or a hidden bias. This intrinsic human essence is inside all of us and is the driving force behind connection regardless of cultural differences.

The Power of Human Connection

Diverse cultural upbringings shape diverse mindsets and ways of life. Yet, defining an individual by their culture is a simplistic view—it limits possibilities to learn about the person and to build potential relational bonds. While cultures may be quite distinct from one another, there are no profound differences about being human. When we peel away cultural differences, we discover universal traits and behaviors that transcend borders and races­. We each share a universal bond of the common human essence—hope, love, happiness, acceptance, sadness, fear, anger, spirituality, and ambition are traits that every human possesses.

Knowledge vs. Embodiment

Two of my former colleagues, John and Patricia, illustrate how knowledge can go only so far without embodiment. They both were accomplished senior American executives who were well-versed in the worldwide market. However, John had a significant advantage in terms of achievements and global experience. Early on, John was exposed to various cultures growing up in Asia and Europe. For more than twenty years, John built a successful career in finance, both in the United States and overseas. Yet, despite his exposure to diverse cultures and extensive global business experience, John was often arrogant and close-minded. He had difficulty connecting to people beyond the surface level. Many people felt he was rigid, unable to fully listen to the opinions of others or acknowledge his shortcomings.

On the other hand, Patricia didn’t live overseas and hadn’t been exposed to other cultures until her international business trips. She only had twelve years of business experience compared to John’s twenty years, and only five years in global business. However, what Patricia did have was a capacity to connect with and motivate those around her by being humble and open-minded. What Patricia lacked in experience and cultural knowledge, she made up for in humanity and openness. People flocked to her and loved being in her company. Her perspective and attitude transcended borders, cultures, and races, and created a pervasive feeling of connection. What limited John from maximizing his success wasn’t his cultural knowledge or experience; it was his mindset and attitude. Ultimately, Patricia became far more successful.

As we can see from this example, while John possessed abundant cultural knowledge and global experience, he didn’t possess an open mind or attitude. It’s not about the knowledge; it’s about how one uses it. John was what many would describe as having a strong global mindset. Global mindset is not an academic term. A mindset is a part of our being—how we think, feel, and act—and how we intrinsically connect with others.

Broadening Our Horizons

Cross-cultural agility is about one’s relational capacity to connect with others while navigating through differences. This capacity is foremost built on human qualities ­that transcends culture, race, gender, knowledge, and experience. While we may assume that cross-cultural agility is the exclusive domain of people who have been exposed to or worked in diverse cultures, what truly matters is the open attitude and innate ability to connect with others, a genuine quality that no amount of traveling or exposure to other cultures can make up for.

Seeing and accepting an individual beyond cultural differences immediately opens the human space and present broader possibilities. In workplaces, this outlook promotes inclusive perspectives, which drives strategy, and ultimately results. On the other hand, narrow stances lead to pigeonholing. It costs organizational effectiveness and bottom line. It reduces a company’s potential to fully develop and leverage its varied global talent pool, and to foster inclusion and cooperation of diverse beliefs, cultures, and expertise.

Defining and differentiating cultures can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, there are clear distinctions we must be aware of. On the other hand, it would be distancing to apply those characteristics to every person within a particular culture. Cultural knowledge, empathy, humility, and open-mindedness are the ingredients vital to attaining an expanded relational agility in navigating through mixed cultural environments. This capacity is foremost built upon one’s genuine desire to see and interact with people as an individual, not as a representative of a culture.

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