Cultural agility in a globalized workplace

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In today’s globalized world, companies that want to succeed need employees who are able to adapt to foreign environments and work well with the local workforces.

In simple terms, what today’s firms need is a pipeline of culturally-savvy employees.

However, relatively few employers concern themselves with cultural differences when they send staff for international assignments.

In a recent survey by Towers Watson, cultural adaptability was found to have often been overlooked by employers – only 19% cited it as a challenge on selecting candidates for duties abroad.

For Brent Tignor, Regional HR Manager, Stepan Asia, the results are not surprising due to two main reasons.

“First, it is common for the people initiating these cross-border movements to have not worked in another country themselves, naturally leading to a lack of understanding of the importance of cultural adaptability,” he explains.

“The second reason is that the impact of cultural adaptability is difficult to quantify in terms of dollars and cents, relegating the issue to an afterthought.”

With the increase in cross-border movements worldwide, it has never been more important to deal with the cultural aspect of global talent mobility.


It’s common sense… isn’t it?

The biggest myth that employers tend to perpetuate is that cultural adaptability is a matter of common sense.

But contrary to this popular belief, being culturally savvy is much deeper than this. Cultural differences exist because there are different cultures – workplace norms in one culture may not be acceptable in another.

A recent survey by Career Innovations found that what is perceived as positive and effective feedback in the US in inappropriate to Chinese employees. In the US, feedback is usually given to each individual in a direct way. However, Chinese employees are accustomed to receiving feedback as a group. Companies noticed a higher turnover rate among employees for no apparent reason, until they were able to bridge that communication gap.

Author of Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals and Professor of human resource management at Rutger University in the US Paula Caligiuri argues that cultural agility is more than just cultural awareness, or cultural adaptability.

“While there are times when cultural adaptation is needed for success, there are times when cultural adaptability is inappropriate, such as the best approach to maintain the organisation’s standard,” she explains. “There are also times when taking the time to create a new form – one which represents neither culture completely – is the best approach for international assignees.”

Developing competencies

It is not only enough to pick the right people for international assignments, HR also has the responsibility of preparing and equipping those workers.

“What HR can do is implement cross-cultural exposures, even if it is just a short-term project that lasts only a few days,” advises Tignor. “Some people may not even realise that working in a different cultural environment is something they actually enjoy but it’s up to us in HR to provide these learning and opportunities and encourage a company environment where people feel comfortable in trying new things.”

“In today’s world, a company without culturally adaptable leaders is a company that is destined to fail,” concludes Tignor. “The challenge for HR is to start by staffing the company with individuals who are not just strong technically, but also exhibit the competencies that allow someone to be culturally adaptable. No company will ever reach its full potential without a culture of cultural adaptability.”


Cultural boo-boos

If it’s any consolation, even high-profile personalities make cultural boo-boos, proving the point that cultural agility is more than just knowledge or common sense. In a reception with Queen Elizabeth II, US First Lady Michelle Obama briefly put her hand on the Queen’s back – an act that is a big no-no according to standard protocol. Touching the Queen of England goes against strict rules about royalty that are set in stone. This came after a 1992 incident in which then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating put his arm around the Queen to direct her through a crowd.

The most infamous of them all is former US president George Bush, who can most probably fill an encyclopedia with his bloopers. His top gaffes include winking at Queen Elizabeth II, giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel a backrub, and talking with his mouth full at the 2006 G8 Summit.


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