Bilingual thinking: learning to think like a local on international assignments – Complinet News article

International organisations are now looking towards global training and coaching solutions as a way of dealing with cross-cultural issues. Borders are disappearing as a result of the internet and e-mail and larger businesses are seeking new ways of getting their international teams to run more smoothly. After gaining an understanding of how things are done in the country you work in, one of the first steps is to learn how to think like the locals. It requires what might be seen as a type of “bilingual thinking” — learning to think in a second language. Even though it could seem difficult initially, this advanced empathic understanding could help break down many of the barriers, which can be created in part by lack of local knowledge.

Organisations are using cross-cultural facilitators to deal with outstanding issues and are reporting increased morale along with better communications, as a result of staff having a better understanding of how each other work. It is easy for small issues to become problems and often it can be over a simple misunderstanding. For example, in 2005 I was attempting to complete a proposal for a programme in Asia, yet the closer we got to signing the contract the more it started going cold. Little did I know they were waiting for a day with a “lucky number” before moving forward.

Cross-cultural workshops are a great way of getting issues out into the open and it is worth asking staff ahead of the event what kind of topics they would like to address within the workshop. Some topics which may come up include misunderstandings around the use of language; making wrong assumptions with good intentions; beliefs and traditions; challenging versus being respectful; giving upward or downward feedback; assertiveness (either too much or too little); along with what kind of beliefs we take from media images.

In group-work situations what is needed from the outset is the ability to sit through difficult conversations. I was in Africa in January delivering a programme for a global telecom infrastructure company and it was a breath of fresh air to hear team members having “big issue” discussions. We discussed a wide-range of topics, which were affecting the company in South Africa, including roles and responsibilities and why management had made the commercial decisions they had made. A healthy debate took place with people moving forward and not trying to apportion blame.

The top team from across the region were committed to openly discussing the difficulties of doing business Pan Africa, and the cultural differences that can arise when trading in Egypt, Libya, Congo, DRC, Nigeria, Kinshasa, Cameroon and South Africa. The success of this particular event was perhaps due to the abundance of issues which created a sense of readiness to look at what needed to be done.

On this particular contract I was working closely with the HR director. We agreed the workshop design, in which events included initial one-to-ones to get to know the senior team, followed by white water rafting on the Vaal River for the 20 delegates. The workshop content agreed by HR and myself offered something of a cathartic approach to getting to the bottom of outstanding issues. I offered two ways forward for the main workshop event: the first was writing down resentments or unresolved issues and leaving them in a box to be read out in front of the group, while the second alternative was to have each person voicing their own issues in open group which would be facilitated by myself; bravely everyone chose option two. The event was to put the past in the past, along with designing how the future might look for this rapidly growing organisation.

For this particular type of event, in my experience, it is imperative to get people with appropriate training, as the facilitator needs to have the skills to encourage ownership of issues, create a safe environment for team members to both say what they mean, and mean what they say. The need for external input is extremely important, as the facilitator who is brought in for the event should be impartial and not aligned to particular team member; this helps to create a level playing field. A good deal of what needs to happen early on in the event requires that everyone has some training in empathy and listening skills, it is worth including empathic understanding and listening skills exercises into the programme before the main event.

Getting some ground rules in place is a must for creating a safe environment. Basic rules might include: respecting personal and cultural differences, not discounting others’ ideas, being non-judgmental, giving feedback directly and openly, focusing on the process and not on personalities, working towards the solution, rather than dwelling on problems and treating others with the respect that we would like to receive.

These basic rules can be used in any country when difficult issues need to be addressed; however the issues in Africa might be very different from issues in Thailand. Taking assertiveness as one particular issue, in Africa it seems to be considered the right thing to do just to give direct feedback — all very matter of fact, while in Thailand the indigenous population would regard this as being extremely rude because the individual being given feedback could be seen as losing face; this is something that Thais will avoid at all costs. In Thailand they have a saying, “Jai yen”, which means keep a cool heart, so basically do not lose your temper. Losing it with staff in Thailand also means losing their respect. Thais believe if you do not manage yourself well, then you probably won’t be able to manage others; they make a good point.

I am pleased to say it is not all bad news for the corporate globetrotter, and working in different parts of the world can be both exciting and rewarding; it can also let you see how things might work differently at home. I do believe that having an open mind is crucial if you are to get the best out of your experience, and bilingual thinking, once mastered, can make working internationally a whole lot more enjoyable.

Ian Claffey is an International Executive Coach, Coaching Supervisor, and member of the accreditation assessor’s team with the Association for Coaching. Ian has worked across a wide range of sectors at senior level including: Banking, Insurance, Legal, Petrochemicals, Manufacturing, IT and the Global Communications Industry. He is involved in Group development and Top Team programmes, including one-to-one Coaching and facilitation of cross-cultural and difficult Team issues in the UK, Africa and Thailand. Additionally Ian is developing the Association for Coaching, Southeast Asia.

-Ian Claffey