You suck at working in a foreign culture bub.
July 27, 2015 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Short of saying flat out what I said in the title, how can one help people learn to become “bicultural” and adapt to a foreign work style if they are unaware of the need to do so?

There is a ton of information and training materials about learning to adapt to other cultures for people that are aware of the need to do so. There is little info about helping others that don’t know that they are not proficient in the ways of a foreign culture.

I have worked for a person that was completely ignorant of how to act in the foreign culture we worked in. He would say the locals, “Act like children and are unprofessional.” He didn't get that time was viewed differently, that communication was more nuanced and that he shouldn't push people to make a sale. He lost us two very important customers and cost us a lot of time and money.

Currently I have a foreign national answering to me in my country and his communication style among other things isn't working and could cost him his job.

Telling people directly that they need to adapt and how should they do it could be seen as condescending and is not the right way to approach something like this. Any suggestions for a better way to do this?

BTW, I’m purposely not mentioning the specific cultures in order to get more general advice. Next week I would like to ask how to handle the specific situation I am facing now with more details.
posted by Che boludo! to Human Relations (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Telling people directly that they need to adapt and how should they do it could be seen as condescending and is not the right way to approach something like this.

If someone is being more direct and less nuanced than the culture in which they need to operate, then this is the right way to approach them, because that's their communication style. "Hey, Stu, I need to talk to you about your communication style. I know that it worked well for you in [previous place] when you were doing [previous role], but here in Elsewherestan, people communicate differently. Now, you know and I know that it's a lot easier to [be like Stu is], but the goal here is to get business, right? So we're playing their game, not ours. Lemme give you some tips..."
posted by Etrigan at 7:26 AM on July 27, 2015 [18 favorites]

You put them through a professional cultural competency training course.
posted by deathmaven at 7:26 AM on July 27, 2015 [13 favorites]

just seconding Etrigan. i live in a foreign culture. i find it hard, at times, and i don't know of many resources. if someone told me i sucked, and gave me resources to get better, i'd take it as a fact / challenge and use those resources.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:31 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Telling people directly that they need to adapt and how should they do it could be seen as condescending

Telling your staff directly what you need from them as part of their job is good management, not condescending!

You've no need to persuade anyone that another culture is different or is equally valid or any of that. You just tell them that adapting to (local customs) is part of the job, and offer them whatever support you're able to in learning how that can be done. Then if they are still not able to, you've got a performance problem to be handled the same as you'd handle any other performance problem, i.e. eventually it will cost the person their job.
posted by emilyw at 7:36 AM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: FYI, the second one is a very indirect communicating culture.
posted by Che boludo! at 7:39 AM on July 27, 2015

I think you're making it too personal, and that is making it difficult for you to address this. Don't make it sound like they are a bad/sucky at their job person and just stick to what improvements they need, and then be very specific about what it is they need to change. The worst thing you can do is be vague because that doesn't give them any direction. This is no different from any other management issue.
posted by Aranquis at 7:40 AM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

You should tell them what you expect them to do, rather than frame it in broad cultural terms. Whoever works for you needs to understand what is required of them, without being told that they need to adapt to the prevailing culture. If anything, the point of hiring people from various backgrounds is the diversity of outlooks that they bring to the table.

For example, "In this organisation, we expect people to...(be on time at meetings, dress smartly, submit reports on time, establish a rapport with customers before talking shop, always answer emails, etc)..."
posted by Kwadeng at 7:58 AM on July 27, 2015

I'm not sure that a US-style direct approach is appropriate, especially given what you've told us about the second scenario. Surely the employee knows there are problems, even if his own indirect culture doesn't allow him to openly acknowledge that. Given the information provided, a cultural training and/or education approach might be the most appropriate -- with the rationale that it will benefit overall performance of the employee, and the company.

(For what it's worth, I will never see questions like this again without thinking of this thread on the Blue.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:04 AM on July 27, 2015

deathmaven has it. You can get an external consultant to come in and present workshops in local work culture and professional environment for foreign employees. I work with someone who does this, usually for large groups of international employees to understand cultural mores both in the workplace and more widely (e.g. expectations about time, about manners, about communication styles but also about eating out, which can affect work relationships as well).

Otherwise as a manager it's important to set specific measurable expectations for the whole team in this situation, like, "I expect all team members to respond to emails within x time period," or, "When I ask for progress on x project, I am specifically looking for x information." I would make it less about the wider culture of the country and more about your managerial expectations and those of his coworkers. Depending on the cultural adjustments that the employee might need to make, it could feel overwhelming to them.
posted by tracicle at 9:13 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to volunteer as a kind of job coach for a local non-profit that provided assistance to immigrants and refugees. I worked for an technology industry association for a long time, and then in government, and so I had a really good understanding of what local technology employers were looking for, and I had relationships with most HR managers and CEO's in the industry.

So I could sometimes quickly find people jobs, typically if they had an exotic skills (say, ERP or video codecs, or product management of "smart devices").

There were other times when I just could not provide any help.

The non-profit often complained to government and local employers that "no one ever wants to hire immigrants" but I knew they were wrong.

The main problem I observed was a combination of lack of skill (nobody needs to hire an automotive engineer in our city, and sysadmins and IT managers are a dime a dozen) and a lack of understanding how things work, specifically communication styles and how to manage relationships. Networking, all that stuff.

So I think you need to let your reports or coworkers know where and how they can improve their communication styles. They probably just don't know.

I lived and worked in a different culture for a long time, and it was imperative to understand communication styles. I was always happy when someone told me what I was doing wrong.

Indeed, when I arrived in the country to start work my colleagues and peers who had been there for a while made it a point to tell me what I was doing wrong.

You are allowed to be direct, because you and your subordinate are working in the United States.

They have to adjust to you, although there will be some give-and-take of course.
posted by Nevin at 9:29 AM on July 27, 2015

.could cost him his job.

Telling people directly that they need to adapt and how should they do it could be seen as condescending and is not the right way to approach something like this.

How would you approach it if it were any other failure that could cost him his job? Does your company have a HR process for someone who is in danger of being fired?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:01 PM on July 27, 2015

If I understand the situation, you're located in an indirect culture. You have one direct person who reports to you, and their directness isn't appropriate in the work context. If this is the case, I think a personal, mentoring approach could work.

I'm from a direct culture and live in an indirect one. I asked local friends to help me change my ways. They were happy to non-judgmentally tell me, "Next time, you might want to say it this way…" or "I think you didn't catch that X was actually saying 'no.' Here's how I can tell…" For important conversations, I even had a friend who was willing to let me practice on them first. It was immensely helpful to have friends I could call and say, "I have a cultural question…"

It sounds like your report isn't aware yet that they need to change. So you might consider this: The next time the direct person does a "direct" thing that could have bad consequences, even if it's minor, could you take them aside and explain what is likely to happen? Position it as an example of an ongoing cultural difference and not something they did "wrong." You might say that based on your experience in both cultures, it's hard for a direct type to even notice issues in an indirect culture, so you'd like to help.

Maybe suggest you meet regularly (once a week?) so you can talk about what happened that week and what cultural issues may have been involved. You could also encourage the person to call you any time with questions or to practice important conversations with you. I'm suggesting a regularly scheduled "cultural chat" because if the direct person isn't aware that their behavior isn't working, they won't call with questions. After a few sessions with you, they might begin to see potential problems on their own.

It would also help to give them a bit of reading, preferably something short that directly compares their culture to the local culture. It can help to have some basic cultural concepts and vocabulary in place so you can both talk non-judgmentally about the differences.
posted by ceiba at 10:48 AM on July 28, 2015

I recently read The Culture Map and it's not perfect, but it has some examples and techniques that I liked.
posted by papalotl at 2:02 AM on July 29, 2015

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