Cultural Adaptability

Cultural Adaptability is an individual’s willingness and ability to adapt their manner of communicating, motivating, and managing, across countries and cultures.   In an increasingly interconnected world, cultural adaptability is both a key skill and a necessary personal commitment for any leader.

Cultures are fascinating and complex things, and any communicator needs to understand and take into account the cultural lense through which their audiences will perceive a given message.  For a time, one of my additional responsibilities was executive sponsor for helping develop Cultural Adaptability in IBM teams.

IBM sees four basic levels of understanding on the path to cultural adaptability…

  1. Cultural Awareness is the basic awareness that there are indeed differences between cultures, and that these differences impact communication, business processes and outcomes.
  2. Cultural Knowledge is when one understands cultures beyond one’s own (and beyond common stereotypes!), and is able to consider similarities and differences between those cultures.
  3. Cultural Sensitivity adds the ability to read behavioral signals and patterns, and to understand how cultural differences translate into challenges which must be overcome to be effective in another culture.  It also entails a openness to new ways of doing business, and demonstrating respect for other cultures.
  4. Cultural Adaptability – the highest level – is demonstrated ability and willingness to adapt one’s style of communicating, motivating others, negotiating, managing, and/or leading teams in different cultures, to achieve outcomes in a cross-cultural environment.

Here are my top tips for developing Cultural Adaptability skills:

  1. As Steven Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  2. Accept that “different only means different”… It doesn’t represent “right vs wrong”.
  3. Be respectful of other cultures’ working hours, time zones, public holidays and religious observances.
  4. Speak slowly and clearly, and be patient with those who do not natively speak your language.   Follow up in writing to ensure both parties shared a genuine understanding of what was agreed.
  5. Be mindful when using analogies and anecdotes.  Sports, myths and fables vary significantly across cultures.
  6. Be careful with humor … it differs significantly across cultures.
  7. Understand when “yes” means “acknowledgement” and not “agreement”.
  8. Making a small symbolic effort – perhaps learning a few words of local language, or demonstrating one local custom – indicates your respect for the local culture.
  9. Don’t worry about being imperfect.   In my experience, most people appreciate that you’re at least trying, and are quite forgiving if you don’t get everything right.
  10. Dive in! The more experiences you have, the more culturally adaptable you will become.

Cultural Adaptability has the potential to not only make us more effective and successful leaders, but also to make our world a happier place for all of its diverse citizens.

* Please note: I don’t hold myself up to be an expert on the many interesting and diverse cultures on this planet.   But I do try to lead by example in understanding and respecting cultural differences, and allowing for them in the execution of my professional responsibilities.

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