3 Essential Characteristics For Performing Well In
Any Cross-Cultural Business Situation
(This article expands on another recent article of mine related to this topic. Some content is repeated.)
Performing successfully in cross-cultural business situations begins with your mindset and approach towards these situations. By definition, they involve people from different backgrounds, with different habits, perspectives, and ways of doing things. As a result, there are many things you’re not going to know. And many situations you’re not going to be very familiar with. Misunderstandings and mistakes are going to happen. Disagreements and even conflicts are likely to occur.
But when doing business with people from another country, you can talk all you want about what you don’t know and what I don’t know. About how different we are. But that’s not going to help us be successful together. What will is figuring out how to come up with solutions, solve problems, and get the result.
From my personal experience as a foreigner working daily with Chinese professionals for over 20 years, your English skills and cultural understanding are not the most important factors for performing well in these cross-cultural situations. For your English skills, of course, you need to be able to communicate at a basic level. But for cross-cultural understanding, to me, it’s too often overemphasized. Instead, what has a much bigger impact on your ability to interact and communicate well with others from a different country and culture are three fundamental characteristics. These are:
The sincerity I’m referring to is your sincere desire to understand and work with others to achieve a result together. Sincere people are more genuine and transparent. They’re down-to-earth and easier to work with.
For instance, I always tell our consultants that others can tell what kind of person you are by the way you do and say things. Especially when you’re dealing with experienced and successful people, they can tell where you’re coming from and what your intentions are. Whether you’re someone who genuinely wants to help them, and who is committed to doing a good job for them. As opposed to tricky, clever people, who are more me-oriented. Who mainly care about what’s best for them.
Which type of person do you prefer working with? Well, when in very challenging, cross-cultural business situations, what motivates others to work things out with you is the feeling you give them that you’re making a sincere effort to do everything you can, to understand them and deliver the solution or result that’s needed.
In cross-cultural business situations, people also like working with others who are highly professional. Highly professional people are viewed as reliable. They have a mature, straightforward approach to how they do things, so are also easier to work with. The standards and consistency they bring to the situations they’re in helps them to stay focused on their objective and responsibilities, even when things get very difficult.
The opposite is unprofessional. This describes people who are overly emotional. They’re easily frustrated. They’re negative. When things don’t go according to plan, they complain a lot and blame others. They give you excuses or long explanations why something didn’t work or wasn’t done well. Who wants to deal with this kind of person?
In a word, professional people are solid. Especially in international business situations where you’re often dealing with tough problems and trying to achieve challenging results, you want to work with solid people who are focused on solving problems and delivering results.
As a boss and foreigner, personally, I don’t care how much you know about American culture or American people. If you’re curious and interested, that’s good enough for us to connect with each other. So your cultural understanding isn’t going to define our working relationship. What will is the value you can bring to the situations that we’re in together.
Why? Because people who deliver value to others are more supportive, solutions-oriented, and results-driven. If I know that you have something that’s beneficial or of value to me, I’m going to make every effort to try to understand you. If your English isn’t that good, I’ll ask you as many questions as it takes to clarify things. Do you mean this, or that? Are you trying to say this?
If you’re working in a multinational company, with foreign executives, or with someone overseas, it’s likely because you have something of value to offer them. Whether that’s your insights, expertise, or knowledge about something.So think about what that is and focus on delivering it to others.
As an example, I met a guy earlier this year who worked in a state-owned enterprise (SOE), but then got a new job in a multinational company. In his new role, he participated in weekly meetings with the U.S. team in San Francisco. It was his first time to face such a situation with foreigners, so he was very nervous. So I asked him, “Can you understand what I say?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Well, I can also understand everything you say. So don’t worry about your English skills. They’re good enough.”
Then I told him, “Based on what you said, the reason your company hired you is because you understand this market. You know the users and competition. Your U.S. colleagues are relying on you to know these things so they can do their job well. And they don’t speak Chinese, do they?”
He said, “No.”
I said, “So don’t overthink it. Trust me, they’re more than happy for whatever English you speak. Just focus on sharing with them your knowledge and expertise of this market.”
That’s what he did. Later, he told me that his meetings with his U.S. colleagues were going very smoothly.
Cross-cultural business situations are challenging for anyone. But if you can find ways to help others be more successful, they’re going to be more motivated and patient to understand you and get along with you. If you don’t have much value to offer others, they’ll make less of an effort to do these.
So if you participate in a lot of international business situations, my advice is this. Stop thinking so much about what you don’t know. Because the list is endless. Instead, focus on and trust your sincerity, your professionalism, and the value you have to offer in these situations. More than additional English lessons and cross-cultural training, these three characteristics will have a much bigger impact on your effectiveness and success as a global-caliber professional.