Change and Disruption in a Global World Requires Cultural Competence

Updated: Jan 13

We’re living through a very disruptive time. Change is happening so rapidly it can be challenging to adapt and operate effectively in the workplace. Things are even more difficult because the world is shrinking. Thanks to technology we can interact with anyone, anywhere. We need cultural competence to communicate and collaborate effectively at work, and to comport ourselves well in social situations involving peers and colleagues from different cultures.


Heidi Dulebohn sat down with good friend Ramona Galea, an etiquette expert and HR professional, to discuss the value of cultural competence in business. What follows is an edited excerpt from their conversation.


How has communication helped you to navigate and adapt to change?


Ramona: The only thing that’s constant is change, and the basis for that is communication. The basis of communication is listening, to your audience, to your team. We apply the 80-20 rule. 80 percent of the time you’re listening to observe and understand. 20 percent of the time you talk. Sometimes that skill is difficult to master. It takes time to empathize and understand, and it takes a level of trust.


Heidi: I concur. Listening is so important. Around the world, we are so busy, and then the pandemic hit. Sometimes we forget to stop, take a pause and really listen. I always think to truly listen you must be present, feel what the other person is saying, with empathy. Without trust you can’t have any kind of success or engagement and move forward. We’re trying to get from here to there. So, set clear goals, and with trust, you’ll get there.


How do you integrate etiquette into interactions when the need for speed, and to get things done is a factor?


Ramona: Etiquette is a set of rules for personal behavior that is acceptable and familiar in our society and in different cultures. But what is considered correct in my culture may not be considered correct in another culture. There is this basic understanding that underpins everything. Etiquette can be applied to every situation, social or professional. It’s about adapting and understanding the differences in our cultures and what we consider to be polite. Etiquette evolves, and it’s about how you apply it in different situations. It’s about being respectful to others, showing dignity. From a leadership position, if you have a team, you’re guiding, mentoring, with genuine and authentic interest in their development, it’s not about you. It’s about others.


Heidi: The respect and dignity leaders show others in their organizations naturally brings in points of etiquette, which at their core are about respect, kindness and being aware of others feelings so as not to cause offense. It is evolving as Ramona said. It’s dynamic and fluid. Etiquette is a living thing. But what is constant, what hasn’t changed is this feeling of respect and kindness. It’s different across cultures, but the kindness and respect is still there.


For example, when we speak of table manners. I’m in the US, Ramona is in Malta, we met in the UK, and we studied together in Brussels. In the US, if you’re not using your knife and fork, your hands should be in your lap. In Brussels, your wrists should be on the edge of the table. There’s history to that. It once meant, look, there are no weapons in my hands. The differences across cultures are fascinating, but across the globe, the value of respect and kindness are not going to change — I hope!


How do you adapt to a cross-cultural audience but still practice that fluid style of communication that is so critical for business success?


Heidi: Authenticity is extremely important. As we say, “do you.” But you must always adapt to a situation. For instance, if you walk into a room, and you’re meeting with senior-level executives, you’re going to have a different demeanor. You’re going to be more professional than if you were out at happy hour for drinks with friends. You’re still “you,” but you adapt to where you are and who you’re with.


You may be going into a culture that’s vastly different from your own. You need to be able to “read that room.” So, you should do research, be curious, that will help you navigate the changes with respect. If you don’t take the initiative to learn about another culture, it’s very easy to inadvertently offend and cause quite a bit of harm. You need some background or a baseline level of cultural competence.


Ramona: Curiosity, learning about other cultures is so important. You must educate yourself not only in the nuances and religious or family traditions, which can be quite complex, it’s about understanding how, for example, people make decisions. How they dress, what language they speak, those could provide cultural clues, but in a corporate context, the underlying factors around how people make decisions, how people relate to others, whether in a business meeting or when trying to close a deal, culture is important. Do they come from an individualistic culture, for example? Are they focused on what’s in it for me? Or, is it all about the group? All of that impacts how people conduct business. It’s about understanding that, at the end of the day, taking my normal approach is not the ultimate or the only correct one.


Heidi: Right! Just because something is different it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We should celebrate and appreciate cultural differences. Then, reasonably adapt to be respectful.


Ramona, working in Malta, a very multicultural environment, you routinely interact with people from Russia, Italy, France. How have you cultivated professional tolerance, and why is that important?


Ramona: I have to go back to self-education. It’s all about understanding why people react and behave differently toward others. I come from a Mediterranean culture. We may be a bit more exuberant, but others don’t have to express themselves in the same way that I or my colleagues would. As an HR professional it is always a challenge to inspire employees to accept this difference and to be more tolerant to it. Sometimes when you’re caught up with the rush at work you just expect people to behave like you, but they have their norm, and we have ours.


Empathy is also so important, especially in these times. Heidi pointed out kindness, which is sometimes associated with weakness, but it’s truly not the case. Still, you must strike the right balance between being kind, showing empathy and fulfilling business obligations. They just need to be done with respect and communicated with dignity and a level of understanding.


Heidi: Tolerance comes back to curiosity and wanting to learn about another culture. I’ve worked with senior-level executives who may be at the top of their game at home, but when they’re transferred to a new location, they’re not successful at all. Their style doesn’t translate.


In some cultures when they say yes, they mean no. You need to know that to do business there. Some cultures are very linear, like Americans. We’re very direct. You and the family are okay? Great, let’s get to business. Whereas someone from Asia might be more introverted, or quieter. I need to understand that if the other person isn’t saying anything it doesn’t mean the business is going nowhere. It could be a huge success, they’re just thinking.


But we’re not stereotyping here. All Americans or Asians are not the same. There are, however, national characteristics or generalizations that you need to know going into business or even personal scenarios. Some level of cultural awareness and competence can have significant benefits when it comes to communicating more effectively.


What about clothes? How can you use clothing to facilitate your work?


Ramona: Dress is all about perception, the way we’d like to be perceived by others. So, one should dress appropriately for the occasion or situation. Dress does make an impact in work as well as social occasions. There are various elements that one needs to keep in mind. First of all, it’s about the level of effort you put into it. It is considered to be a sign of respect if, say, you are invited to a wedding or other event, and you took the time to present yourself appropriately for the occasion. That’s equally important in a corporate context.


I believe color plays a role in business as well. Fabric, patterns and prints make a big difference. Wearing a floral maxi dress might give off a sense of being soft, whereas a business pant suit conveys confidence and authority. It doesn’t mean you don’t have confidence or authority in a dress, but that first perception and impression that you give, is different and extremely impactful.


Heidi: Absolutely. People will size you up in a nanosecond. It’s not just what you wear either, it’s also how you represent yourself. What’s your body language? Are you put together? That old saying there are no second chances to make a first impression is real. There are no redos, and I completely agree with Ramona’s comment about respect. You dress because you respect the invitation to the dinner at someone’s home — when we can do that again — or the business occasion.


I’ve worked with so many young people who go for interviews, and they dress completely inappropriately. For instance, say you’re trying to get a tech job in Silicon Valley. The perception is that technology execs wear jeans and hoodies, but you can’t interview that way. Maybe after you get the job, but beforehand it’s just not respectful. It’s not just about them either, it’s about you: I took the time to put myself together because I care enough about you to put my best foot forward. It’s about knowing what’s appropriate and expected and adhering to that out of a sense of respect.


Ramona: It’s also about the complete image, and as you say, how you carry yourself, your posture, not being too flamboyant. Even that may need to be controlled. It’s all about perception. Do you want to come across as professional? Fun? It depends on the situation, and you get to choose how to position yourself best.


Heidi: It can be tough to balance everything, but you can do it!