Significance of people in business transformation
Importance of attitude in cross-cultural communication
Why we still ignore, defer, or underestimate the significance of people issues in business transformation
"If you leave us our money, our buildings, and our brands, but take away our people, the Company will fail. But if you take away our money, our buildings, and our brands, but leave us our people, we can rebuild the whole thing in a decade."
Richard R. Dupree, a former CEO of P&G in 1947
Business transformation is ubiquitous. It comes in all forms, shapes and sizes. Traditionally only as a result of big disruptive events such as a post-merger integration or a strategic redesign of your traditional business model, today's world is spinning faster. Fueled by digitalization, transformation has become a part of our daily life.
We have solid data from decades of research telling us, that “people and culture make the difference” in transformation efforts. While it is good management practice to gather reams of financial, commercial, and operational data, the attention to understanding and shaping the culture of an organization is at best cursory and at worst nonexistent.
Why is that so? Well, people stuff is hard to measure and we have learned to blame the system for that. There is a set of the same explanations (better: excuses) we hear, wherever we go. Here are the 4 most common...
When we share that list, people are mostly nodding in agreement.
So if we can’t beat the system, how come there are innovators out there, who have emerged from cost center thinking to business engines, determining the future structure of their organization strictly based on the potential business impact of each unit? In what way did market leaders design lean and agile cross-functional decision-making flows instead of static and linear business processes? How do the best companies set a compelling, value-driven tone for the new culture and establish a highly participative cultural journey based on responsibility and engagement while out pacing competition? How to drive disruption while your competitors are still compromising?
There is a short and a long answer. The short one: It takes guts. Every brave move can be allocated to a leader or a team (of leaders) who decided to challenge the status quo. This has become rare in our risk averse world.
The long answer will tell us how staying on that path and replicating these behaviors will help the organization to gain speed. And that is always a great starting point for a discussion!
The Importance of Attitude in Cross-cultural Communication
The rise of technology in the 21st century has changed the business world inside out. We are working in a truly ‘global’ setting now and a lack of cross-cultural communication skills is costing millions of dollars every year.
It is very rare for a professional working in the industry to not meet a manager or a technical expert from another country who speaks a different language and lives by different values. Still, it is expected of us to be successful in working with “the other side”. There are various requirements for successful interaction in a multicultural environment; the importance of self-awareness and attitude is often underestimated.
We all have our insecurities, and we all have our strategies to deal with them. Some of us prepare well for the unknown in order to attempt avoiding uncertainty. Some of us neglect to address our insecurity, while others are open and authentic and look for help and insight. A widespread strategy to cope with insecurity is to place oneself mentally into an attitude of right and wrong, possibly judging and criticizing differences. Judging is human nature, yet not always positive.
When we come to a country with a very different culture, the feeling of insecurity as an expatriate, spouse, or traveling business person is of course much higher than in our native cultural milieu. In the new setting we receive less affirmation of our own internal belief system. For many of us this internal belief system is like an "internal security system", subconsciously based on a "one truth exists" idea. In an environment with different rules this automatically leads to a sense of our belief system or ego being in danger.
A natural automatic defense mechanism exists in which we are tempted to judge from a perspective of superiority. We are unaware that such superior judging is part of a strategy to meet our need for security.
If we do not actively make ourselves aware of what we think and feel, we radiate such internal attitudes via non-verbal communication such as our body language or the tone of voice. The result may be conflicts or failure to achieve our goals.
A westerner communicating with an Asian person might easily become impatient when being confronted with indirect messages which must be interpreted within the context of when, where, how and to whom it is being said. In fact, impatience is already a form of judgmental behavior. Not being able to decode the indirect message makes us insecure and thus may even lead to a harsh evaluation of the interlocutor by labeling him as inefficient, unclear and not to the point in his communication. We base this on our belief that communication should be direct and those cultures using indirect communication are inferior. From an Asian perspective it could easily be argued that not being able to read between the lines shows a lack of emotional intelligence and is therefore inferior...
If we react negatively to differences, even if we do it in silence it will come out in our thinking and behavior. We then in turn increase the chances of triggering negative reactions in those around us. We will find ourselves confronted with subtle resistance in minute ways, and our interactions may function much less smoothly than they would if we had a different kind of attitude. In fact, this subtle resistance may have the perverse effect of reaffirming our foreigner’s internal mindset of “I'm right, you're wrong," creating a negative cycle of reaction and counter-reaction.
Only a small percentage of people are naturally aware of their inner emotional attitudes and belief systems. So, what can we do about it? Intercultural coaching and training are definitely powerful options as long as they also focus on increasing awareness. In fact, every self-improvement process starts with self-awareness.
Once we manage to avoid judging and insisting on our own truths and perspectives as the only correct way to do things, we will certainly be more successful in cross-cultural communication than those who have studied all the do’s and don’ts of a certain culture but fail to acquire for themselves a mindset of mutual respect and equality.