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Cultural Competence: the ‘Must Have’ Soft Skill for a Successful Career

Cross cultural competence is such an important skill for an ambitious professional to develop, especially if you have a global focus to your work. Let’s face it, most businesses today do have a global component, either in the customer base, supply chain, or key facets of operations. Being able to negotiate and communicate with peers and stakeholders around the world is essential for successful business interactions of all kinds.

I interviewed a good friend, Meta Fadrija, to discuss the importance of cross cultural competence when negotiating recently. Meta is a true citizen of the world. She’s essentially made cross cultural competence her life’s work as an executive coach and global communications advisor. Here is a short sample from our conversation.

What is cultural competence, and why is it important for effective communication?

Meta Fadrija: It’s all about empathy, being able to feel, see and relate to the world and people’s issues. It’s a high-level social skill that sends signals to others that you understand and value where they’re coming from. It can be used to break barriers, especially nonverbal ones. Also, when you have empathy you can build trust, whether you agree or not. You can see things from different perspectives, and be in someone else’s shoes.

Heidi: Empathy is at the root of cultural competence. It’s very important to have some sort of understanding of another culture and an appreciation for it. You don’t have to share the beliefs, but you can appreciate the differences. It's about being respectful.

We live in a digital world. It’s almost borderless. Each of us brings our own ethics to the table. What role should ethics play when we interact in a virtual, global world?

Meta: We are living through a time of rapid, radical change. Thanks to technology it’s as if we’re not separated by different places, continents or time zones. But ethics in these constraints highlight the distinction between legality and legitimacy. You can make a judgement about whether some behavior is compliant with established rules and regulations. But to say that it's legitimate suggests that the global court has approved.

Heidi: Right! We all have our own culturally-driven expectations for behavior, ethics and values, but there are general, unwritten codes of behavior. Those are borderless, and that’s the beauty of our world. Ethics and etiquette may vary, but there are certain things that transcend all of that.

How can you respectfully negotiate across borders and still be authentic to your beliefs and values?

Meta: To negotiate with people from different cultures, you need empathy. It’s foundational. There are so many details to consider, timing, for instance, or the social status of the people you’re negotiating with. Even the language they speak impacts our effectiveness. Combine these things, and understand them in conjunction with what you are negotiating to make the negotiation successful.

Heidi: It’s also important to be authentic but be flexible enough to adapt reasonably. You have to be empathetic. You have to learn something about the other culture, like how exactly do they negotiate? In some cultures they want to know about your family first. In other cultures, like me as an American, pleasantries can be relatively short, then we get down to business.

Meta: We’re the same. We have small talk before the negotiation to build trust before we get into business. People who are negotiating across cultures have to do their homework so they know how to build that trust. It’s often safe to indulge in a bit of chit chat, and then bring up something important from the country. It could be something well known or famous, keep it neutral, but you should be genuinely interested in that culture.

You have to have the right mindset to navigate successfully in this cross cultural world. What is that mindset, and how does it come into play when negotiating cross culturally?

Meta: Mindset is a set of beliefs and thoughts that will affect our behavior. There are two types, one fixed, and the other is growth; that’s flexible. That’s the one you want. When you approach something you don’t start with judgement, you don’t put your own assumptions. You start with curiosity. That helps you to see things differently, to walk in someone else’s shoes. Then you can see why the person is doing this or that, and it's easier to get a win-win solution.

Heidi: I'm big on curiosity, and that bit about being without judgment is gold. You can’t have preconceived notions of another culture. Keep an open mind, be curious and respectful. Then with empathy you can start to learn. It’s very difficult to have a complete understanding of a culture other than your own, but you can learn to appreciate it, and to celebrate the differences.

In the absence of deep cultural knowledge, how do you minimize the opportunity to cause offense or make mistakes?

Meta: When we don’t do our homework, or we take culture for granted, it can lead to outcomes we don’t want. One time I was in a meeting with Western and Indonesdian guests. There was tea and snacks because it lasted for several hours. At one point the host said, please, let’s have coffee, etc., but none of the Indonesians ate.

Why? It was during Ramadan, a fasting time, and during the day we don’t eat. It was a nice gesture, but it would have been better to check such things in advance to make sure there is nothing that might impede the usual meeting operations.

Heidi: You definitely have to be aware of who you’re entertaining, and who you’re doing business with. Your meeting host was being gracious, offering cakes and tea, but she didn’t check to see if it was appropriate. I love the way you responded though. You were gracious in turn, acknowledging the hospitality and not holding the mistake against her.

Meta: Yes, we understood. But people are getting more sensitive about that kind of thing. You have to be aware. Now, where possible, I warn people to be aware of holidays like Ramadan in advance. That way both sides learn and are comfortable.

How can cultural competence advance your career, or how can a lack of it derail your career?

Meta: We have become digital travelers. You can travel the world by phone or laptop in one day. Cultural competence, a flexible mindset, empathy, these are necessary. It’s the “must have” soft skill nowadays. Either you are in a big multinational company, or you’re doing a small scale business, but you are still connected to the global world.

In a multinational there are few divisions that don’t have a connection with the global world, whether it’s procurement, legal or human resources. You have to be able to negotiate, communicate and deal with talent. In a small scale business, you still need that cultural competence, that ethics. You have to know the international dos and don’ts and what the global market wants, for instance, when you advertise through social media. Everything is globally connected.

Heidi: I’m in Tennessee, and there is a big push by some organizations here to help local people interview and find jobs in Dubai and all over the world. Thanks to technology you can look anywhere for talent, but you have to be culturally competent to apply for some jobs and then be successful in the role.

Meta: Cultural competence is a skill. You have to learn and practice it. Many millennials are already part of the global community; we have that competency built in. Others can increase that skill by reading a lot, and connecting with people from different cultures. It’s tough these days to physically be anywhere, but being online can enhance your knowledge.

Heidi: Yes! I was lucky enough to travel. We can’t now — and I’m dying to get on a plane; my wanderlust is off the charts — but we can be curious. There are courses online, and you and I both coach. It starts with curiosity, no judgement, respect and empathy, and the world is waiting. Meta, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me today.

Meta: I thank you, Heidi, and I hope what we’ve discussed will be useful for your viewers and mentees. I hope this talk increases people’s awareness of the value of cultural competence.


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