How do you deal with cultural differences? Look for the similarities.

One of my Chinese clients asked me: “Are your programs as effective in other parts of the world as they are here? Our culture is completely different from yours in Europe.” I nodded. I often get asked this question.

I regularly lead management development programs in the US, Singapore, China and Australia, dealing with vast cultural differences, not only between me and the group members, but also with differences between people within the group itself.

It’s easy to identify the differences, but I know from experience that these differences often lead to misunderstandings on all sides and even to conflict. How on earth do we provide successful and effective programs under these circumstances?

Universal needs

In the programs that I lead abroad I focus, not on the differences, but on the similarities that we have as people and on the universal needs we all share. I discern two basic universal needs: the desire to achieve something and the desire to belong.

All the people I’ve worked with and met to date share the desire to achieve something, to achieve goals, to contribute something and to leave something behind. We also like to be part of a bigger picture, maybe a group of friends or family, an organization, a religion or a team of some sort

Our behavior is often driven by fear of the opposite, the fear of failure and the fear of rejection. Both are of equal worth to me because desire and fear affect behavior and that is what we facilitate and what we help to develop.

Seek first to understand

To achieve sustainable behavioral change I need first to get a good understanding of the context and associated behaviors of the participants. The motto ‘seek first to understand then to be understood” applies here. Only then have I earned the right to work with participants on an alternative approach or behavior. Once participants recognize that I understand their context they let me enter with them to the deeper level – the universal needs – to examine where there is space to enhance co-operation, to provide more effective leadership and to communicate more efficiently.

Don’t be surprised, be amazed!

One important condition of the program is that I don’t impose it on my participants, I offer it to them, instead. The responsiveness of the receiver depends on your willingness to understand and your skill and ability to align your message accordingly.

I hear you thinking: does that mean differences shouldn’t be mentioned? Of course, it’s important to pay some attention to the differences. However, experience has taught me that differences are more easily overcome if I work from the principle that behavior stems from the fundamental desires and fears mentioned above. Wherever we work in the world, our fundamental desires and fears are the same. Embrace cultural differences. Don’t be surprised, be amazed!

Similar Blogs