How to bestride continents with confidence

Apr 01 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It's probably not on the same scale as President Obama's challenge tomorrow at the G20 summit to save the world by getting agreement from a roomful of clashing egos with conflicting priorities, expensive wish-lists and all speaking different languages.

But the reality for managers over the next few years, however and whenever we finally emerge from the slump, will be one of managing ever more cross-cultural, disparate and multi-lingual teams across wide geographical boundaries and timezones.

And, worryingly, it's a reality few managers and organisation have yet recognised or even started to prepare for, according to new British research.

A study of 45 global companies by UK think-tank Career Innovation has concluded that, while most senior management teams are well aware of the need to give their leaders the skills to manage cross-cultural workforces effectively, few have acted to make this a reality.

While managing teams is rarely easy at the best of times, it is well recognised that ensuring you have the right conversations and provide the best leadership when your workforce is diverse and dispersed can be even tougher.

Yet this is exactly the sort of environment experts on both sides of the Atlantic now predict managers of the future will regularly face.

In January, for example, a panel of experts brought together by U.S website Workforce Management forecast that, by 2018, workplaces would have become more transient and populated by ever-more mobile and flexible teams, in turn requiring much more consensual, collaborative management techniques.

Similarly, consultancy KPMG last September predicted that, as the working populations of the major Western economies shrink and age over the next decades, there is likely to be a global migration of workers from developing and emerging nations, again creating a whole new set of management challenges.

And, last summer, a survey of British firms by HR consultancy Penna found that just a fifth used multi-lingual recruitment and assessment processes, a failing that could seriously hamper the more global managers of the future and put the UK at an economic disadvantage.

Of the 45 organisations interviewed by Career Innovation, it was clear the vast majority now recognised that working effectively across cultures was becoming a much more important business priority.

Most said they were already operating complex organisations across multiple regions and almost all Ė 91 per cent Ė expected cultural diversity in their organisations to increase over the next three to five years, with nearly half expecting a "significant increase".

The study also identified the three top factors that affected how managers managed in a cross-cultural environment.

The first of these was the directness of communication style adopted by the management team.

The second was language differences, an issue especially important when people were not communicating in their first language.

And the final factor was the need to establish high levels of trust across cultures, so that development conversations could be effective, argued the consultancy.

Within this, differences between Asian and Western cultures were consistently cited as a particular challenge, with half of the managers polled reporting this as an issue.

Six out of 10 said admitted that effective coaching and building coaching relationships was much tougher in some cultures than in others.

Even just giving feedback could present challenges, for example, with one company reporting that its Chinese employees quit after receiving challenging feedback.

"This issue has a big impact on global organisations", said Career Innovation founder Jonathan Winter.

"Although they are increasingly aware of the need to encourage meaningful dialogue with employees about their careers and development, only a few have really taken on board the additional complexities overlaid by the cross-cultural dimension.

"Left unresolved the cross-cultural conversation gap hits the bottom line in a way companies can ill afford in today's tough times," he added.

Organisations that placed the strongest focus on building their employees' cross-cultural competence tended to report significant benefits, including improved attraction and retention rates, he concluded.