A lesson on cross-cultural communication

CIB's Executive Director Lisa Miller

I have been thinking about our T’13s, who are tackling their first term at Tuck in multi-cultural study groups. There is a great deal of emphasis on the “hard” skills in the Tuck curriculum, and appropriately so. However, “soft” skills – including how to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds – are crucial as well. As the story below demonstrates, even when all the right “hard” skills are present, a deficit in cross-cultural skills can really undermine one’s effectiveness.

When I was in business school in the mid-1990s, I worked on a consulting project for an American company that was contemplating a joint venture with a firm based in Changsha, China. The Changsha company had told the American company many encouraging things about the prospects for the jv. The American company wanted to verify some of these claims, and this is where my classmates and I came in.

I was confident that I had all the skills to handle the project. I had a good command of market research techniques and Mandarin Chinese. I had supportive professors, lots of resources from my client, and great teammates with complementary skills. What could go wrong?

One of the first things that I had to do on the ground in Changsha was facilitate some focus groups with locals. We were only in China for a short period, so I felt quite pressed for time. As I sat down with my first group, all I could think about was the need to complete high-quality work in as little time as possible. With those thoughts in mind, I dove into the focus-group questions, without taking much time to tell the participants about myself, make small talk, or draw the group participants out. Not surprisingly, my questions were met with nervous silence.

After the session ended in abject failure, an employee of the American company who knew both Chinese and American culture took me aside. “Lisa,” he said, “you’ve lived in China, you know something about the culture. You can do much better than this.” He reminded me that China is a relationship-based society, where interactions often proceed much more smoothly when there is a sense of mutual trust and identification. In addition, at that time (this was about 16 years ago), people were still a little fearful about interacting with foreigners. Thus, my approach to the focus group had caused them to clam up, and my quest for efficiency had actually led me to be remarkably inefficient.

I tried to do better in the next focus group. I remember the almost physical effort required to slow myself down, to avert my eyes from the clock and spend a few minutes making connections with my group members. But, at some point during the day, the gentleman who had counseled me earlier took me aside and said with a smile “I knew you could do it!”

Some very simple lessons from this experience guide me today. First, develop an awareness of your own interaction style. I have learned over time that I am direct, high-energy, and impatient. I try to leverage those qualities when they’re helpful, and tone them down when they’re not. Second, take the time to understand the interaction style and business norms of the environment in which you are operating. In certain environments, I try to build up personal rapport before diving into business discussions (and I have reaped both business and personal rewards from this approach). In other environments, I have learned to be a lot less direct than I would be back home, to listen carefully, watch body language, and “read between the lines” of spoken interactions. Finally, adapt your style when necessary. I have learned that being indirect is not the same thing as not getting my point across; in fact, in certain environments it equates to getting my point across more effectively, albeit in a different manner that I would use at home.

So, I hope that as Tuck students work with their study groups they will reflect on their own interaction styles, ask how their styles might play out in other countries, observe their classmates’ styles, and try different approaches to both listening and communicating. If students can gain some facility with cross-cultural communication during their time at Tuck, this will go a long way to helping prepare them for global careers in the years to come.

This entry was posted in China, Globalization, MBA Students, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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