Cross-cultural competencies development – The skills needed in international companies

By Gosia Kluk

L&D Professionals’ role is to make sure that employees are equipped with skills, knowledge and the proper attitude they need to excel at work. Competencies may vary depending on the roles of each employee, their organisations’ goals, or within their chosen industries. Some of them may be universal, others are company or job specific. They will also change with time. New trends, changing environment, and various clients’ expectations require L&D Professionals to support employees in their efforts of growing and developing their skills.

One of the recent needs, not widely talked about a few years ago, are cross-cultural competencies. Doing business overseas, entering foreign markets, working on international teams have become more and more common. Skills that would have sufficed a few years ago, may not be enough nowadays. To an already long list of various skills, we need to add cultural aspects.

Cultural backgrounds can affect the way people communicate, lead teams, make decisions, provide feedback, build relationships and more. Times when we could rely on one universal approach to all are gone! Cultural diversity has plenty of benefits ranging from enhanced innovativeness and creativity, to higher productivity and efficiency, as well as providing a more diverse and inspiring work environment! However, to balance it, there may also be a few challenges, such us possible cultural misunderstandings, miscommunication, frustration and lack of understanding between team members or business partners. That may lead to potential unsuccessful deals and hence international businesses failures. Consequences of poor cross-cultural competencies are underestimated. Cross-cultural differences are not about different languages or simple gestures such as a handshake or a bow, they are embedded deeply in our values, beliefs and assumptions and are reflected in our daily behaviors.

Let’s look at a few classic examples. The first being the way we share a negative feedback with each other. Some cultures may be very indirect in doing it as they expect you to understand their message by reading between the lines. For the sake of maintaining a good relationship, the feedback will take a form of a hidden message. You may think they are unprofessional and not honest with you. Secondly, a colleague from another culture may have a flexible approach to punctuality, deadlines and meeting agendas; while you may perceive it as lack of respect to you and your precious time. Lastly, a new team member on your team, who grew up in a hierarchical culture, may expect you to provide specific instructions, and will follow them without questioning your decisions. For you it may be a sign of lack of engagement and low motivation. You would prefer her to discuss openly her ideas, concerns and comment on your decisions. For her that may be unacceptable to say it straight to your face.

Cultural differences don’t mean one culture is worse or better than the other, it simply means it is different. Mutual understanding and awareness of such differences prepare us to face challenging intercultural situations without judging, stereotyping or generalising others. L&D Professionals should carefully support employees who work in an international environment. It’s easy to fall into the trap of sending your trainees to a specific culture training without asking yourself what the objectives of the training are. Instead of training people on a specific culture, a more general approach is needed. An approach that will help employees to work effectively in various cultural contexts, e.g. national, ethnical, generational, organizational, etc. One of the approaches that would be successful is Cultural Intelligence (CQ) development. CQ is an approach which, aside from specific knowledge, focuses on motivation for international work, ability to strategise and plan for intercultural interactions as well as putting the acquired competencies into action; regardless of the culture they work with. Such a wide approach prepares people to appreciate and succeed in a cross-cultural experience.

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About the author:

Gosia Kluk is a Learning & Development Professional with over 13 years of experience in various industries. Gosia has lived and worked in 5 countries, from the Philippines to the US. Currently, she lives and works as an L&D Consultant in London, UK. Gosia is a certified Cultural Intelligence (CQ) facilitator, NLP Practitioner, ITD World certified coach and mentor, and Predictive Index analyst. Gosia’s biggest professional interest and goal is to help people develop their cross-cultural competencies and work effectively in various cultural contexts. In her free time, she is a world traveler and a PADI dive master.