How To Go Global

How do you learn to “go global” and take your product, and your company, to an International scale?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. I founded this company because I believe that American businesses, in particular, are really embracing the global economy. That means learning how to adapt products to different cultures around the world; changing a business’s internal culture in order to be compatible; changing how projects are managed, because the traditional Western management style that most of these American businesses employ, those styles are not going to work in Asia or South America or the Middle East. So, American businesses need to start to adapt.

Adapting To “Global”

A new level of business cultural awareness is needed. We need to understand how to communicate with each other, how to adapt to each other’s way of thinking about time, how to manage people with a different concept of power distance or the separation between a boss and an employee. It’s a complex landscape.

Taking a product into another country means adapting that product so that it fits well with the culture there. For example — lets say you wanted to take a product that was a four pack of golf balls, here in the United States, and sell it in Japan. It’s probably not going to work — because the word for “four” in Japan sounds very much like the word for “death.” So taking that product and simply slapping a new label on it in Japanese and shipping it over there — that’s not going to work.

This is why we created the Global Project Compass (see our six-part article on the Compass). It’s a map that takes 27 different project management verticals, things like quality assurance; time estimation; acceptance testing, and it maps them to business cultural preferences. And we see how, for example, communication is going to change each one of these 27 different project management disciplines.

We are global project experts. We understand the technical execution and we understand the cultural implication. Our programs will make sure that you succeed taking your products overseas and building a multinational organization.

Time Orientation And International Success

If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

How we think of time is a tricky subject, and one that varies from one culture to another, as I’ve talked about before. Does your culture view time as more fluid, a resource that is infinite? Or is timeliness and meeting deadlines of critical importance?

Time, Projects, And Business

In the project context, time becomes very meaningful. To the business, meeting a product delivery date can be the difference between success and failure — but, at the same time, different cultures will view the importance of meeting that date relative to other priorities. In strongly relationship-driven cultures, for example, the date is subordinated to relationship building. Customer happiness may be more important than shipping before the Christmas buying season. It can also imply an expectation of tolerance and understanding when dates slip.

Time can have a dramatic impact on our business relationships as well. When Japan and Australia entered into a sugarcane export agreement, conditions where beneficial for both parties. As time changed market conditions, Japan ended up with the “dirty end of the stick.” But the relationship-centered business model of Japan led to a huge misunderstanding when Australia refused to renegotiate business terms — in essence, Australia felt the timing of the deal was good fortune for them, while Japan expected that business terms would adjust as time went on. A very fixed versus fluid perspective (and one that resulted in a long and nasty dispute).

The American phrase “time is money” indicates how the typical American prioritizes time, but this approach never works in a culture that prioritizes the relationship (meaning, most of the Middle East, South America, and Asia). To these cultures, it’s more important to get to know each other, to build a trusting relationship, and then begin talking about business. There will always be time to make money together — in the future. Anyone that rushes the process is probably going to be viewed as impetuous, unreliable, or even untrustworthy.

The Global Project Compass™ identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by time orientation:

  1. Project Time Estimation
  2. Quality Assurance Plan
  3. Requirements Management
  4. Testing Plan
  5. Acceptance Plan
  6. Performance Measurement

Project Time Estimation

Probably one of the most obvious consequences of viewing time differently is how we estimate time. Is that estimate a “drop dead” date that we absolutely will meet, no matter what? Or is it an average of where we’ll end up if all goes reasonably according to plan? Might it merely be a hopeful guess at what could be possible?

Depending on your culture, any of these options will be true. Understanding how your partner’s culture views time is crucial to knowing what a project estimate means.

Quality Assurance Plan

Planning the successful — and problem free — launch of any product demands forethought. It demands awareness and convergence of many different plans: Research, development, supply, construction, testing, marketing, customer support, distribution, and more. In a multinational situation, supply chain logistics and regional conditions ranging from weather, product availability, and local holidays play into it.

Assuming a quality assurance organization that is timely and schedule driven, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult their job must be. Consider a global team, where different offices have different notions about the priority and meaning of “time.”

And finally, ask yourself: How does our quality assurance organization, itself, think about time? Is being on time important? Is it one of the quality metrics they are watching out for?

Requirements Management

Are the requirements known at the outset of your project? Or are they vague and fuzzy, with new features “popping up” here and there? Scope creep, or the unending addition of new requirements, is one of the most dramatic influencers on a project.

If your business cares about setting a clear end-point for a project, the team needs to understand that. In cultures where time is fluid, the idea that a product is set in stone and cannot change will seem irrationally rigid and short-sighted. At the same time, projects that seem to shift like a sand dune under someone’s feet will drive a sequential, time-oriented person crazy.

Setting the right expectations is part of the solution, but also knowing how to leverage the strengths of each perspective is key.

Testing And Acceptance

Different products take different approaches to testing. Software can begin testing early in the product life cycle, while manufactured goods need to be tested once they come off the production line. In all cases, though, testing and acceptance is critical and needs to happen at the right time, and in the most effective way.

Both are “critical paths,” too. This means that someone, somewhere, is waiting on the results of testing or acceptance.

Will your testing team be ready to go at the right time? Will the right urgency be applied to the process — or will testing be run like like a fluid project, adding new requirements on the fly?

Time Orientation: Fixed Or Fluid?

Understanding time orientation means knowing how to build a healthy organization — one that supports the time orientation of its employees, without sacrificing necessary business goals. It’s a tough topic to master, because how we think about time is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious. It’s a part of who we are, and changing that doesn’t come naturally.

Think about how you feel, when kept waiting in the conference room for the other team. Are they late, rudely wasting your time — or are they instead thoughtfully giving you a few extra minutes to prepare, while they respectfully and unhurriedly wrap up another meeting?

Think about how hard it will be to change that initial, first reaction, the next time someone is “late,” or seems offended that you are not “prompt.”

Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.

Managing Time In Different Cultures

Meeting deadlines and managing project workflows when working with people from different nationalities can be one of the most challenging aspects of managing intercultural business relationships. Different cultures have very different perspectives when it comes to the importance and flow of time.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Somebody asked me recently how different cultures think about time, and I thought the best way to explain that would be with a short story.

Recently, I moderated a panel, here in the United States. In order to prepare for the panel I put together about seven slides that introduced the topic, which was the global economy, and each of the panel members. But, when I ran those slides by the panel coordinator, she was really concerned that I would take too much time. I had seven slides, she told me I had only four minutes, to go through the entire introduction.

So we start the panel presentation, everything goes great. We get through the introduction, less than four minutes, and we start the panelist’s portion. Now, during the panelist’s presentation, she is sitting right up in front, where I can see her, holding up cards to show us how much time is left. 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5… 2… and the last card, a big zero on it, to show that we are done. You have to stop now. So we end up wrapping up the panel at exactly 60 minutes, when the panel coordinator comes up to the podium and makes it clear that we’re done, even though there were still a lot of people raising their hands and wanting to ask questions. This is typical in the United States, and few other Western cultures where time is so important — it rules all.

Now lets compare this to my very first experience teaching, offering  a presentation, in Asia. I went there with all of these preconceptions about how important time is. As I was preparing for the presentation, I asked the Project Manager, how much time should I take and he said, “ohh… you know, about an hour. That’s fine. You do whatever you think is right.” Well, being American, I planned exactly for one hour.

Now, the next day, when the presentation starts, I’m really stressed out. Because it’s 10 o’clock, we are supposed to be starting, and people are just starting to show up. I hurriedly asked the Project Manager, “Do you want me to shrink the presentation, because we are late, I could pull it down to 45 minutes or so.” And he says, “Oh, you know, if you think that’s right, you do whatever you think is best. 45 minutes would be fine.” So, on the fly, I cut pieces out and we wrap it up in 45 minutes.

The presentation went well, but afterwards when I am talking with the Project Manager, he asked me, “Why did you finish so soon? Everybody was loving it! They had so many questions! We could have gone for another hour, or another two.” So it turns out that I had sent the wrong message. I had said that my time was more important than spending time with the group, answering their questions.

It’s important when we are working in a multinational context to be flexible and to be observant. To ask somebody, what does the local culture expect and to look for hints. I would have been better served to have paused the presentation and ask the Project Manager, “Do we need to finish up now? Does the team need to get back to work? Or should we keep going?” Remember that particularly in Asia, the focus won’t be on time, it’s going to be on developing a relationship… the focus is going be on you.

What Is Monochronic?

Different cultures view time along a spectrum with monochronic or polychronic at either end. When planning to do business overseas it’s a good idea to understand which end of the spectrum your native culture falls closest to, and where your overseas partner’s time orientation lies. Zacharias Beckman guides you through what it’s like to be “monochronic” in this week’s video blog.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about monochronic time orientation. Do you feel that being late is unprofessional? Or that, your entire day could be thrown out of wrack if you are delayed just a little bit?

Monochronic cultures tends to be focused on the schedule — on doing one thing after another, usually in sequence. Sometimes this is called sequential orientation. Western cultures are very monochronic. Particularly countries like the United States, or perhaps Switzerland or Germany. In the west its common to schedule a day full of meetings, back to back, maybe eight meetings in one day. Agendas end promptly and move into the next meeting, one right after the other.

This approach doesn’t work too well in the east and middle east where culture is polychronic. Polychronic cultures have other priorities and this western schedule driven approach can send the wrong message and often offend the people that you are meeting with.

This sequential approach, this focus on time, is very often a problem when working with eastern or middle eastern cultures, which tend to be polychronic. Polychronic cultures have very different priorities and they think about time differently. By focusing on the schedule, the wrong message can be sent, and misunderstandings can result.

What Is Polychronic?

From a young age, some of us hear that “time is money,” growing up to respect being on-time and efficient. Others learn that time is fluid, and should be invested generously (time is one thing that we never run out of, after all). Polychronic cultures like to do multiple things at the same time and resist being pushed into sequential, linear schedules. Cultures vary from one part of the world to another.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about polychronic time orientation. Think about this story: You are in a phone store, you are buying a new phone and the sales rep is surrounded by 8 or 10 other individuals, all clamoring for attention, and the thing is, he’s giving them attention. He is working with all of them. Polychronic orientation is doing more than one thing at a time. It’s very efficient. Consider the phone store example — while one person’s phone is rebooting, and while another is waiting for a carrier connection, that sales rep can work with someone else. So multiple people are getting served at the same time.

It is also very practical, because much of the world does not have the reliable infrastructure of some modern western countries. Transportation is unpredictable. Power is unpredictable. So, people don’t say that they’re going to be somewhere at an exact time. They don’t necessarily count on being able to work the whole day, because the power might go out. They hedge their bets and, in the meantime, they plan on doing more than one thing at a time. So they’re not inconvenienced by unpredictable infrastructure.

Consider this: If you are in a meeting and suddenly you look at your watch and say, “Oh, I’m out of time. Time to go,” [something that] happens often in the west, well it’s very disrespectful throughout most of the East and Middle East particularly. Because you are basically saying you value your time and schedule more than the relationship that you’re trying to build. Instead, the polychronic individual will take time to build the relationship, even if that means going over budget on the time. Because they trust that the next person they plan to meet will understand that. They will understand the importance of the relationship, and they’ll feel that when their turn comes, you will put the same importance on developing a relationship with them.

The polychronic individual plans on doing multiple things at one time. So, they won’t be inconvenienced or put out by a change in  schedule. It’s important to remember that most of the world is polychronic in their orientation.

Dealing With Timezone Differences

Working in the global economy means spending lots of time connecting with clients and colleagues on the other side of the world. But multinational teams also face “multi-timezone” management problems. What seems like an obvious, potential problem can cause management nightmares for multinational leaders. Here are few tips on how to deal with time zone differences and build smoothly functioning, multinational teams.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and today I want to talk about dealing with timezone differences. In my work, I’m frequently fixing problems with projects that have gone off the rails. That often means a lot of travel — going to international partners, finding out what’s wrong and fixing it. And when I’m traveling, then — that means being able to collaborate with my team, back here in the United States, is also a problem.

Timezone Challenges For Teams

Focus on finding a method for seamless communication, throughout your entire company, worldwide. You want your teams to break down barriers. You don’t want a team here to be thinking “Oh, I just cant call the other team because they are in different time zone, they’re half way around the world and I can’t bother them.” You do want them to pick up the phone and call or use Skype or whatever it is. The teams need to get to know each other. One way to do that is through co-location. Bring the foreign team home for a while. Or, send some of your team members there, so that you can build a tighter relationship.

But when co-location isn’t an option, you can turn to frequent short meetings — by phone, by Skype, it doesn’t matter. It’s the frequent contact that helps. It breaks down barriers so that the teams starts to operate as a single team, not as a bunch of different team separated by distance and culture. You don’t want your teams to feel distant, because then they are going to act distant.

The other thing you want to do is work on implementing collaboration tools that work really well with remotely located teams. So, project management systems that are easy to access, information radiators and easy to use communication tools. Plan your work days to overlap a little bit. It wont do to have your team in India working from 10 to 6pm and your team in the United States working from 9 to 5 because there is no overlap, there’s no communication. Instead adjust schedules a little bit on each side and try to have about an hour or so of overlap, so that your team can then have a daily or semi-daily stand up meeting. The idea is just to get everyone on the phone and in the virtual room together, so that they can find out what happened on the other side of the world and the they can ask the other team for what they need in order to move forward. The frequent contact and the direct connection is going to go a long way towards breaking down barriers between the team and making them more efficient.

But the meetings are short. They are just to touch base. They’re there for one team to let the other one know what happened and what they need so that they can move on and make progress, the next day.

East Meets West: How To Avoid Confrontation

Most Western, individualist cultures value direct communication to varying degrees. Coming quickly to the point of a conversation or stating your main argument up front is one way Westerners do this. Avoiding vague statements, and not softening your argument with conciliatory phrases, are others. Criticism is sought out, and value is given to constructive, direct, and critical feedback. Even in personal situations, individuals will openly welcome a differing point of view.

Confrontation in the West

“Beating around the bush” is a phrase dating back to the 15th century or earlier. Boar hunting, in particular, was quite dangerous, so noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods beating branches and making noise. The unarmed workers kept a distance from the dense undergrowth, where boars might be hiding, all the while making enough commotion to scare the animals out from cover. This evasive technique was called “beating around the bush,” and today the phrase lives on. It’s used to describe someone who is avoiding the main point in a conversation or failing to get to the bottom line. In other words, “beating around the bush” is something one does to avoid approaching a subject directly. In the West, it’s not a compliment.

In Western cultures today it’s acceptable to challenge a superior. When given instructions, subordinates are expected to critically consider those instructions. If there are doubts or questions, they should be asked. If a subordinate believes there is a better solution, it should be raised immediately. It’s common to hear, “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” “there’s a better way,” or “that won’t work, instead we should…” In more casual work environments, simply, “that’s a bad idea,” or “no way!” might be the reaction a subordinate offers. Naturally, one’s attitude should be positive and solution-oriented, but as long as the employee’s objective is to make the right decision, it’s appropriate. Western societies won’t view this kind of direct confrontation as disrespectful, provided the goal is to solve a problem. Instead, it’s collaborative and solution seeking — usually with the biggest rewards going to the person that makes the biggest contribution.

This makes perfect sense when considered from the perspective of typically Western, American upbringing. Children are raised to tell the truth and to be direct. They are told that “beating around the bush” is just a way of avoiding the truth — it’s considered a sign of weak character. Truth, speaking plainly what’s on your mind, and being concise are highly valued traits instilled from a very young age.

Confrontation in the East

In Eastern, collectivist cultures, direct confrontation is rare. Confrontation does take place but, from the perspective of a Westerner’s direct, individualist style, it’s so subtle it seems like an inefficient waste of time. Unity within the group is intensely important to collectivist culture, as family and professional groups are tightly forged and will often last a lifetime. As a result, confrontation takes place, but only in a way that will not break with the harmony of the group.

In the workplace this manifests itself in how individuals interact. The direct criticism and challenges found in Western cultures do not exist. Throughout much of Asia, the word “no” is considered unacceptably abrupt and simply won’t be used. (Strictly speaking, some Asian languages don’t have a literal translation for “no,” and instead rely on restating a question or statement with verb inflection to indicate negative or positive agreement).

When it comes to expressing disagreement, phrases such as “perhaps you are right,” “we will think about it,” “we will get back to you,” and “I need to discuss this with my superior” are in fact polite refusals. To a Western ear, these statements all sound like agreement and, more than that, a commitment to continue negotiations.

Likewise, “yes” rarely means outright agreement. Instead, it can mean “I heard you” or “I understand you.” It can just as easily mean, “what you said make sense but I don’t agree with it,” (think of the Indian head waggle, which carries a variety of meanings from “Yes,” “Nice to meet you” and “I completely understand what you just said,” to “Maybe,” “I sympathize,” or “Hell no.”)

When working in a cross cultural situation it’s hard not to fall back on our native interpretations of people’s behavior. To an individualist Westerner, “no” simply means “no,” and anything else tends to indicate agreement or at least permission to continue a negotiation. From an Eastern or collectivist perspective, “no” is unacceptably harsh, so more harmonious, subtle methods are used to convey disagreement.

When these two cultures collide, there are dramatic misunderstandings.

Harmony or Confrontation

For the individualist Westerner, watch out if it seems the first meeting went so well, a deal should be signed in no time. Was there really agreement, or are your Eastern partners merely preserving the harmony of the relationship? Listen more carefully to the timing, and reasons given for delays. If you aren’t actually on the same page, your good feelings will soon be replaced by puzzlement, as your partner starts to “beat around the bush,” and ultimately frustration when no deal is forthcoming.

For the collectivist Easterner, remember that being very direct is a virtue in the West, and no offense is meant in such directness. Your loud, impervious partner from the West will be looking for clear reasons that things are not moving forward, otherwise everything can look like a problem that should be “hammered out” and solved. If working together doesn’t seem to make sense, directly saying so is respected. This avoids wasting everyone’s time, and that will be appreciated. On the other hand, if you extend any suggestion that working together may be possible it’s likely to be taken as an invitation to continue talking, negotiating, and closing in on a deal.

In situations where the lines are less clearly drawn, remember that the subtle, harmonious way an Easterner indicates disagreement can often be construed as deference to a Westerner. It’s best for both parties to be very clear. Making unambiguous statements such as, “I will deliver the report by tomorrow,” or, “I don’t have the information I need to work on this,” leaves little room for misunderstanding.

Recovering From The Holidays & 10 Tips To Ease Business Travel

Getting back into the swing of things after a major holiday break or personal vacation can be a challenge. It’s January 14 already. Two weeks have flown by and I’m already behind writing this article.

It’s not just about getting back to work and getting caught up, though. For International business people, the rest of the world runs on a different schedule — and that means business kept right on moving while you were out. As I was enjoying Christmas and the New Year break here in the United States, many of my colleagues have been sending emails and patiently awaiting my return to the office. My to-do list on January 6, my first day back, was so long I didn’t even know where to begin.

Business Travel And The Chinese New Year

I remember a client’s story about his first trip to China. Bill had been talking with his manufacturing partner about visiting after the New Year’s holiday for some time. Bill always had at least three calls every week with his partner, most often talking with the production floor manager to get updates regarding progress, issues with the design process, or resolve any questions that came up. Bill’s role on these calls was to make decisions. Most often he spoke with Dewei, who ran the design and production operation. When Bill brought up a visit, Dewei was thrilled to know that he would be coming and made it clear Bill would be very welcome. He said he would take care of all the details, so after New Year’s break Bill decided it was high time to see his operation in China. He sent a note to Dewei suggesting a trip near the end of January. Dewei’s reply was enthusiastic, telling Bill it would be a great time to see China because he would be just in time for the Chinese New Year celebration. Dewei promised to give Bill a grand tour and make him feel very much at home.

He’d never been to China before, and didn’t really occur to Bill that Chinese culture would be dramatically different from American culture. Of course he expected the obvious differences: Language, food, and customs. But business was business around the world right?

Bill arrived in China the evening of Tuesday, January 27, 2009. The Chinese New Year varies from year to year, but in 2009 it started on January 26.

Dewei had arranged for a car to pick Bill up at the airport, and true to his word had made sure all the details were in order. His hotel was nicely appointed, and the hotel manager personally greeted him. Bill was looking forward to a productive week touring his factory, looking over designs, and seeing the final preparations as the factory tooled up for production.

His trip was not going to go as planned.

Even if you live and work there, you can never be entirely sure you understand. It is best to assume that you do not. — Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Company

Dewei met Bill on Wednesday afternoon and announced plans to see the city. Bill was eager to see the factory, but Dewei told him it was closed for the New Year celebration. They would absolutely visit it, but there would be no point in seeing it before next Monday since all the employees were taking vacation: It was the Chinese New Year! Nobody would be working that week, and hardly anyone would be coming to the office on Monday either. The Chinese New Year is very much like Christmas and New Year’s combined in the United States. Bill’s visit to China became a cultural tour, spending the first three days and a weekend seeing the city. There was no visit to the factory until the following week, and even then only a skeleton crew showed up, mostly to meet with Bill. His agenda was completely changed, and Bill ended up having two New Year’s holidays that year. Fortunately, he was able to extend his trip and stay an extra week. As things got rolling the week after the holiday, Bill was finally able to get to know his factory.

In the long run, Bill learned a few important lessons, but he also built a strong relationship with his team in China. Spending that extra week over the holiday meant meeting the family and friends of his partner’s team. It meant getting to know everyone a little bit better, and it meant learning some small bit of Chinese culture. All of this built a stronger relationship, and it was time well invested. At the time, of course, Bill was aghast that nobody had told him he shouldn’t come until after the Chinese New Year. Much like in America, everything shuts down for the holiday, and people don’t get any work done for about two weeks. A good rule of thumb if you’re planning on visiting China is to wait at least a couple of weeks after the New Year’s holiday before visiting — and of course, check your calendar to see when it falls! This year, the Chinese New Year is on January 31. That means the first week of February, nobody’s going to be working. For two weeks afterwards, people may be on vacation, or they may be coming back to work and looking at all that email that piled up from their International partners. As they’re catching up, you’ll be waiting patiently to get back to business.

Learn To Be Flexible

Bill’s trip could easily have been a disaster, but fortunately, Bill was an easy going fellow who really cared about his employees and his partner. I’ve met plenty of Americans that are too focused on schedule and would have been absolutely furious to have had their’s interrupted. Planning your International visit is going to take some extra thought and preparation.

For example, why didn’t Dewei tell Bill it was a bad time of year to visit? I’ve written about power distance and communication quite a bit in the past (and will write much more). In this particular situation, it simply wasn’t appropriate for Dewei to correct Bill. That would have been presumptuous and Dewei’s part, and from his point of view, would probably have meant a loss of face for Bill — who is, after all, his American customer and the CEO of the company. When the CEO tells you he’s coming to visit, you say, “Wonderful, we can’t wait for you to arrive!”

10 Tips For International Business Travel

Here are a few more tips that you might not think of when planning your International business trip:

  1. Get an International calendar and be sure to coordinate around foreign holidays. If you don’t know what a holiday is, find out. some might just mean a few people won’t come in to work, but others could call for a two-week long shutdown!
  2. Look into cell phone use a few week’s ahead of time. You may need to rent a tri-band phone, or get a disposable phone on your arrival. It may not be that easy, either. On my last trip to India, it took an entire afternoon to set up an account, largely because of laws intended to limit terrorist access to data and cell networks.
  3. Plan to take more time than you think you will need. Most countries, especially Eastern and collectivist cultures, will move at a different pace. You’ll want to take time to build relationships, get to know people, and accommodate a different pace at the office. You can’t have the mentality that it’s a quick “get in and out” visit.
  4. Find out if your credit card will work while abroad, and take plenty of cash (in a well protected place). Depending on where you visit, credit cards may not be widely accepted. Also, it’s probably worth upgrading to that Platinum American Express or getting a Capital One business card, just to save the 2.7% foreign currency conversion rates (there are no conversion fees on either card).
  5. While it may seem like a lot of trouble to be interviewed by Homeland Security, getting a Global Entry pass really makes travel go more smoothly in most International airports.
  6. Consider sending your bags ahead, and confirming their arrival at the hotel before you leave. This can save you a huge headache, and makes the trip a little bit less stressful.
  7. Rely on your International partner to help you find good accommodations, set up your travel itinerary, and provide you with a car, but also be sure to explain what you are looking for. “Good” accommodations in one country may not be what you’re expecting! Knowing that you will be taken care of while visiting takes a lot off your mind.
  8. Don’t forget about insurance. Check with your medical coverage to see if they provide services and coverage where you’re going. If not, look into a short term travelers medical policy from a provider such as HTH Travel Insurance, Medex International, or Worldwide Assistance. Also check the CDC site before you go, and make sure you have appropriate medication and shots (such as anti-malaria tablets when visiting Asia, and remember most inoculations are taken 3 weeks before travel).
  9. Plan a day after arrival to recover from jet lag, and don’t forget it happens coming home too. You won’t do anyone any good if you keep falling asleep at the office.
  10. In my last post on travel and International relationships, I mentioned the work week. Be sure you anticipate the local work schedule. It might not be Monday through Friday!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year!

Tips For Avoiding Culture Shock Pitfalls

In the first part of this article, Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas, I explored how immersion in a foreign culture can affect you, your team, and your organization. In this second part of the article I’ll introduce strategies for dealing with culture shock.

There are different ways to deal with culture shock. Early attempts at cultural migration lacked the insights we have today. For example, during British rule in India, it was commonplace for the British (as well as other visiting expatriates) to collectively distance themselves from local culture. In essence, the “shocked” individuals stuck together in small communities, socialized in clubs, and endlessly discussed how dreadful the locals were. This approach proved a very poor one when it came to cultural assimilation. It’s likely to fare no better today.

Preparing To Handle Culture Shock

Studying is one way we prepare ourselves for the adventure and challenge of an intercultural encounter. Simply reading this blog, or picking up a relevant book, provides an excellent avenue to begin such preparations. In a way, research like this is a premeditated defense against the anxiety that is likely to manifest itself. However, reading can only take one so far. What we retain after reading is far less than what we retain experientially. But more important, the value of face to face cultural experience far exceeds what we gain from reading.

More successful strategies at improving trans-cultural competence revolve around developing a healthy curiosity regarding local culture. Total immersion in a culture is by far the best way to experience its values and become attuned to the differences between it and your own culture. One of the best immersion techniques is learning the language of the other culture. While fluency is certainly an excellent goal, depending on the society, it’s often unnecessary. For instance, most professionals throughout India will have a functioning, if not fluent, capability in English. English is, today, the official language of India and more Indians speak English than any other language, with exception of Hindi. Today, English speakers in India outnumber those in all of western Europe, excluding the UK. But it’s important to remember that of the 125 million English speaking Indians, that means there are well over 1 billion that don’t speak English.

Even without fluency  in a local language, you will find that the effort you put into developing any language proficiency will be appreciated by your hosts. The goodwill of being able to speak a few phrases in common shows your good intentions. It demonstrates a willingness to learn local ways. Your hosts will often be much more forgiving of cultural mistakes, and may be flattered to see you trying hard to get to know them. Learning a local language is also an excellent way to develop a stronger sense of culture. Most language programs today will convey stories, history, and a sense of culture as part of the language course.

Avoiding the negatives of culture shock doesn’t fall entirely on the individual. Acculturation is an important topic for businesses to be aware of too. Consider the damage caused by poorly acclimatized people in the business environment: Lost sales opportunities, alienated partners, even entire lost markets. Knowing the potential dangers means limiting potential problems. That means sending well-prepared envoys, or at least minimizing cases where an incompetent or insensitive individual stays abroad, doing more harm than good.

According to Trompenaars, around twenty percent of expatriate managers suffer from severe culture shock and fail to adapt.1 Within this twenty percent figure, there are two specific, identified segments: Five percent develop such negative feelings that the local culture is actually despised, a feeling that usually takes hold after about six months abroad. These expatriates cannot function, and will demonstrate the worst negative symptoms of culture shock. Of the remaining fifteen percent, cultural adaptation never takes place. They follow in the footsteps of the colonial British around turn of the century India: Poor work will be blamed on living conditions, the ineptitude of the locals, and a backward culture. This group will identify other malcontents and avoid local culture. Both of these groups will only damage International relationships for their employers, and should return home as soon as possible. Of the remaining eighty percent, about half will function adequately, but essentially miss home and constantly look forward to returning. The remaining 40 percent of expatriates will integrate smoothly into the local culture. Performance improves, as does moral and overall productivity. This group is strengthened by their experience abroad, and will likely grow professionally because of it. Most often this group seeks out a means to stay abroad longer, if not permanently. Often they will regret returning home when it is finally necessary.

Culture Shock When Returning Home

This is where many employers fail their employees. Upon returning home, the repatriated individual again goes through the acculturation curve. Many expatriates experience problems. Individuals that have successfully acclimatized to foreign culture will experience reverse culture shock at home. Those identified in the most successful 40 percentile will quite often seek to emigrate again. These individuals can negatively adjust to “home” culture.

Employers must be aware of the cultural transition employees go through. Most often, it is when the employee returns home that their company let’s them down by failing to anticipate some of the complexities of International work and the consequences of culture shock. The employee will experience re-acculturation, just as the employee went through euphoria, followed by negative feelings and anxiety, and stabilization abroad. Those feelings, including the negative ones, will repeat. Nancy Adler, Assistant Professor of Cultural Management at McGill University, studied the re-entry process of two hundred corporate and governmental employees returning to Canada after working overseas for an average of two years. Re-entry into the original culture was found to be more difficult than the move abroad.⁠2 It seems that culture shock is not a one-time event — it happens every time someone transitions from one culture to another. This can affect work performance, take a negative toll psychologically, and even affect home life.

It can easily be made worse by an employer or a Human Resources department that’s blind to the problem, treating the employee as if he or she had merely been on vacation. Management or HR departments that have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude risk alienating an employee by dismissing their hard work and achievements while away — a situation compounded if the cultural achievements are not recognized as well. Returning expatriates are often a goldmine of information for a business. Having them talk about their cultural experiences, the challenges, and the opportunities presented is rewarding for the individual. It’s also immensely educational for local staff, and often strategic for the business at hand.

Ethnocentrism

Just as the individual experiences an acculturation curve, so too do guest cultures. People exposed to foreign visitors also go through a similar psychological reaction. The first phase of this reaction is typically curiosity, during which the host is open to the visitor — much like the euphoria of the acculturation cycle. This gives way to the second phase of the reaction, ethnocentrism, in which the host begins to judge the visitor by the standards of their culture. Such an evaluation tends to be unfavorable: Visitors are seen to be rude, naive, distant, culturally backward. Often a belief that the visitor is less intelligent emerges. Repeated or long-term exposure to foreign visitors can cause ethnocentrism to give way to polycentrism, an understanding that people of varied cultures should be measured by different standards. In other words, the view that one’s own corner of the world may not, in fact, be the center of the universe takes hold.

In When Cultures Collide, Richard Lewis very aptly wrote, “We can achieve a good understanding of our foreign counterparts only if we realize that our ‘cultural spectacles’ are coloring our view of them. What is the route to better understanding? To begin with, we need to examine the special features of our own culture.”⁠3

1 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.
2 Nancy Adler, Re-Entry: Managing Cross-Cultural Transitions, Group Organization Management September 1981 vol. 6 no. 3.
3 When Cultures Collide, Richard D. Lewis, Nicholas Brealey International.

Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.