Having spent many years working overseas, I’ve attended my fair share of cultural awareness training. The typical agenda goes something like this: an introduction to the country, it’s population and religion, followed by my favourite section – a list of dos and don’ts.
Am I saying we shouldn’t offer these sessions? Absolutely not. They can be extremely valuable for the intrepid professional embarking on their first adventure in a new part of the world. But what if you’re an experienced manager, who has inherited a multicultural team?
‘Brainstorming? What’s that?’
In my first role in the Middle East, I was expected to flawlessly manage an Arab local, an Indian, an Egyptian, a Brit with an Indian heritage and a Canadian with Palestinian roots. Knowing some facts about my new country was great, but what was the best way to manage my new team?
I made a lot of mistakes. An understanding of car pooling, working late and taking part in brainstorming sessions are just some of the things I took for granted. In this brave new world I had to translate these to: organising drivers, negotiating project deadlines and ‘what if’ sessions.
Time, teamwork and…Hofstede
My first lesson was this: my team would have to learn to work with me as much as I had to learn to deliver results with and through them.
My second lesson came through the research of Professor Geert Hofstede. His ‘Five Cultural Dimensions’ model provides a great starting point for those keen to learn how culture plays out in the workplace. It provided me with some great ‘aha’ moments in terms of handling different scenarios within a multicultural team.
If you choose to work overseas, cultural awareness isn’t just about knowing how to act and behave in the host country. Chances are you are going to be interacting with other people from different cultures in both professional and social settings. Taking the time to explore your own culture may help these new relationships flourish.
My cultural journey helped me develop one of the most effective and close-knit teams that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. As a manager, I matured and learned to appreciate diversity in the workplace.
So, my third lesson comes from a quote by Mark Twain: ‘In 20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’