“It will work out.” This is the maxim that companies often use to plan projects involving people from different countries, because they usually underestimate the cultural differences in the area of communication and cooperation.
After one or two years in a foreign country, emigrants are often surprised to discover that although I now live far away from home, my best friends, with whom I talk about my feelings, worries and hardships, are still my compatriots. But before emigrating, I made a firm resolution..: I don’t want to live in a German enclave, but I want to have personal relations with the people.
“Why do so many emigrants have this experience? Most people who have only ever spent their holidays abroad underestimate how strongly they are influenced by their homeland, They also underestimate how much it connects them with their compatriots that they
- have gone through the same school system,
- have been listening to the same radio stations since they were children,
- are used to separating the garbage,and and and…
The sensation and behavior diverge
All these factors shape our feelings and experiences and thus what is important to us. This is why people abroad often have the feeling: My fellow countrymen understand me better and faster than the “locals”, because it is only in their day-to-day interaction that they register the cultural differences in perception that lead to different behaviour. It is important to reflect on these differences, otherwise prejudices will develop which often solidify into (negative) judgements over time.
Two examples: Germans, but also Austrians and Swiss, often emigrate in order to live more “stress-free”. But after only a short time they complain about the Laissez-faire mentality of their new fellow citizens. And Germans who turned their backs on their fatherland because German bureaucracy “took the air out of them”? They often sing a lament after just a few weeks about how arbitrarily the authorities act in their new homeland and how difficult it is to obtain permits there.
The cultural imprint is usually underestimated
Similar processes can be observed in companies whose employees suddenly have to cooperate with foreign partners – for example, because their employer is opening a new plant in France. Or because the company is setting up a sales organization in China or the USA. Or because it is merging with a Spanish competitor. Or because it has been bought by an Arab investor.
In such situations, companies and their employees often initially underestimate the cultural implications of cooperation – even when the new partners are not “exotic” but, for example, Italian or French, Swedish or American. Precisely because the Western industrial nations have common roots and, to some extent, a common cultural identity, many things appear the same on the surface. This tempts companies to plan transnational projects true to the maxim: “It’ll work out. This means that little time is invested in determining the possible sticking points in the projects and in preparing the employees for the cooperation. This does not seem necessary, unlike when the new partners are Chinese, Saudis or Africans. After all, the French and Americans also eat with a knife and fork – and not with chopsticks. And everything also seems to be largely the same when it comes to working together.
But then the project starts. And some time later, those responsible notice: Somehow the whole thing doesn’t go as planned. There’s constant friction. And our messages are not received by the other person. Then they gradually come to realize that the cultural differences are greater than they thought. Unfortunately, it is then often too late to turn things around – or for this an enormous expenditure of energy would be necessary. Because at this point in time, the latent prejudices that everyone harbours towards people from other cultures have often already solidified into judgements. Judgments that are expressed in sweeping statements and thoughts such as “The French …”, “The Chinese …” or
“Americans are just like that” manifestation.
“The German” and “the Chinese” do not exist
That is, no more attention is paid to the fact that “the French,” “the Chinese,” or “the Americans” exist just as much as there is no such thing as “the German” – even if certain patterns of behaviour are pronounced to different degrees in the individual cultures. It is also no longer reflected that every behaviour results from a certain experience. Therefore, in many cases no understanding is possible. rather, the behaviour patterns are linked with value judgements, like:
- “Americans are more superficial than we Germans.”
- “The Spaniards, like all southerners, are unreliable.”
- “The Chinese, like most Asians, are obedient to authority.”
And it is usually difficult to break these links again, because they are backed up with concrete experiences, at least in the subjective perception. Such processes must be avoided when people from different nations and cultures work together and depend on each other to complete their tasks or achieve their goals – at an early stage. After all, the first few weeks usually determine how well transnational teams will function in the long term. Accordingly, it is important to create forums in the start-up phase of such projects that enable at least the key people to work together, to get to know and understand each other personally and agree on common goals and rules for dealing with each other.
Online communication makes it difficult to get to know each other
Telephone calls, e-mails and video conferences cannot replace meeting and getting to know each other in person. Because how people work together depends very much on the extent to which they can assess each other’s reactions and trust them. And this presupposes that the people concerned have a mutual picture of each other and a shared treasure trove of experience.
This personal image of the other person only arises to a limited extent when communicating via telephone and e-mail as well as in video calls. This is because communication is often largely limited to the exchange of technical information, and the perception of the other person is also limited. There is a lack of sensual experience, such as that which arises when you shake hands with a person. Or when you look directly into their eyes during a conversation. However, it is precisely such experiences that are important for building trust and a personal relationship.
Workshops to get to know each other
It is therefore advisable to hold at least one or two workshops with the key people before the start of transnational projects so that they can “get to know each other” – workshops which are less about planning the project and the cooperation in detail, but rather about creating the emotional basis so that the cooperation works in everyday life even across long distances and cultural borders.
Such workshops cost time and money – regardless of whether they take place as a face-to-face event or, for example, as an online event due to Corona. However, they pay for themselves quickly, as the cooperation afterwards functions more smoothly – also because, for example, the Germans have advocates with the Americans or Chinese and these in turn with the Germans. And do disruptions or irritations still occur? Then it’s easier to call your colleagues in France, China and the USA. Risks that could give rise to problems are therefore discussed more quickly. And already existing problems? They are not swept under the carpet until they become real crises and people start blaming each other.
Such workshops, like all team development measures – regardless of whether they take place as a face-to-face or online event – require careful planning, because learning to know and understand each other is not without purpose. Rather, the participants should cooperate better afterwards. Accordingly, it is important to clarify expectations with them at the beginning. Guiding questions for this can be:
- The workshop would have ended up doing a lot of good from my perspective if …
- For me, the most important thing is that …
Facilitate the learning process
Once the expectations have been clarified, the following topics are usually discussed in such workshops:
- What are the characteristics of the (business) culture of the countries from which the participants come? What are the similarities and differences?
- What are the characteristics of the (sub-)organisations for which the participants work? What are the similarities and differences?
- What makes the participants as persons? What preferences etc. do they have?
- What rules should apply to the cooperation?
No speaker should lecture about these topics. Rather, the participants should talk about them with each other so that the ice between them breaks. Because the central goal of such workshops is: At the end, the participants should mutually appreciate each other as persons. After all, misunderstandings and irritations will always arise during subsequent collaboration. This is the case in every project. The most important differences in transnational projects:
- The possible causes are more diverse.
- And: when something goes wrong, the participants quickly have an excuse ready, “It’s because of the Americans …” the Chinese …”, “… the Germans, because they …”.
Respecting the other person as he or she is
Accordingly, it is important to work out with the participants that mutual respect and the willingness to understand and cooperate are the basic prerequisites for successful cooperation. However, the way in which respect is shown varies from culture to culture. Therefore, such workshops should also discuss questions such as:
- In which situations did I (not) feel respected?
- What is the importance of respect in my life?
- How do you pay your respects to other people in my country?
- What are the differences between our countries?
- How should a person behave in order to be respected in our company?
Rules for dealing with each other can then be derived from the answers.
One rule should be: If someone breaks a rule, I don’t sulk and withdraw. Rather, I ask the person why they behaved the way they did. Because most rule violations occur because of misunderstandings. Or because the person in question lacked information. Or because they were under stress. Or because…
Accordingly, irritations resulting from rule violations can usually be easily resolved by talking to each other – without immediately accusing the other person.