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Business, Culture Edition Cultural Intelligence – An essential tool for the professional coach


By: Louise Dunn •  4 years ago •  

In Australia’s contemporary environment, working with colleagues and clients from a variety of cultural backgrounds is a positive attribute of our day to day work, be it as trainers, coaches, managers or business owners.

Over the past 25 years working in the fields of management consulting, international education and executive education, I have seen first-hand how Australia is now linking with Asia in more ways than ever before. Our economy, businesses and communities are becoming increasingly interconnected.

Asia is home to three out of Australia’s top four trading partners. New free trade agreements – including those signed with China, Japan and Korea recently – have opened the door to new opportunities, falling barriers and greater market access for small and large businesses alike.

For example, a 2015 research study by ANZ, Asialink Business and PwC found that Australia’s trade in services (like education, consulting and others) to Asia could be worth $163 billion and contribute 1 million new jobs to the economy by 2030.

Similarly, more and more visitors are coming from Asia to Australia to work, study or travel, with over one million tourists from China alone visiting Australia in 2015.

And with Asian migration also on the rise, Australia’s population is becoming increasingly diverse and presents a great opportunity for Australian businesses to gain mutual understanding and successful business outcomes in the Asian region.

Against this backdrop, strong cultural awareness and ‘cultural intelligence’ have become essential skills for all professionals working and interacting with different cultures. They are now essential tools in any professional coach’s toolkit.

The cultural iceberg: understanding culture and cultural intelligence While there are many different theories and approaches to understanding culture, one popular metaphor that we often draw on at Asialink Business is to view culture as an iceberg.

Like an iceberg, only the tip of any culture is easily visible, while much more lies hidden beyond view.

And just as ships have a habit of crashing into icebergs, people in culturally diverse situations can also be at cross purposes if they don’t take the time to understand what goes on beneath the surface of the culture, understand one another’s history and develop cultural intelligence.

In essence, cultural Intelligence is about considering not only the tip of the cultural iceberg, the 10 percent, but also the other, critical, 90 percent beyond what is initially visible. It involves the ability to reflect on your own behaviour and consider how to function effectively in a culturally diverse situation, gathering knowledge and acquiring skills before acting in a new situation.

Organisations and individuals that take the time to invest in building their cultural intelligence (CI) skills are better able to understand how their own workplace style is likely to be interpreted by others and put strategies in place to build confidence and effectiveness in working with Asian colleagues, clients and cultures.

At Asialink Business, Australia’s National Centre for Asia Capability, we work with businesses and organisations of all sizes to help them build the CI and develop the Asia-specific capability of their staff more broadly. Our partners range from large corporates in the financial and legal services sectors, to smaller businesses involved in agribusiness and manufacturing.

Why invest in building CI and Asia capabilities?

More and more Australian organisations are recognising the importance of developing these skills and the positive impact this can have on their business’ bottom line.

In fact, in 2012, a national taskforce (the Asialink Taskforce for an Asia Capable Workforce) found there was a direct correlation between an organisation’s Asia capabilities – of which cultural intelligence is a bedrock – and business success in and with Asia.

The taskforce found that the higher the proportion of Asia-capable leaders, the more likely business performance will exceed expectations. However, the opposite was also true.

Similarly, a 2014 independent survey, commissioned by Asialink Business with support from the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group, identified a number of ‘capability-based’ challenges that are among the biggest barriers for Australian organisations doing business with Asia.

These included challenges relating to negotiating and making sales, accessing information on local market and industry conditions, regulatory and legal requirements, and challenges involving local talent and conducting due diligence.

And the biggest challenge of all? The survey found that while building relationships with the right local partners was often vital to success, establishing such relationships was the primary difficulty for businesses of all sizes.

Most Asian cultures tend to invest significant time in building trusted personal relationships before or whilst focusing on the business matter at hand. In many instances, when I have been establishing a new relationship with an Asian business partner or client, it has been necessary to take time to attend social functions like banquets, dinners or even karaoke, as well as to answer questions about my family and personal life.

For professionals working across cultures, whether in coaching, training or any other sector, it is important to recognise the importance of relationships and take steps to build long-lasting ones. This can be extra challenging (but remains vital) when working in a virtual or online environment, such as managing a cross-cultural team that is located across various countries or coaching a client primarily using online communication.

Working across cultures – 3 steps for building CI

So how can you build your CI and help ensure your relationships with Asian partners, clients and customers get off to the best possible start?

When we work with both individuals and businesses, we find it useful to break the process for building CI down into three stages.

The first phase is about building awareness. This involves understanding your own cultural profile and preferences, your values, beliefs and assumptions, how this profile may overlap with and differ from other cultures, and how it may affect your behaviour and interactions.

The second phase is knowledge. Once you have developed an understanding of your own cultural profile and preferred work style, what strategies might you want to put in place to recognise and work cross culturally?

The final stage is focused on skills – successfully applying your cultural awareness and knowledge when interacting with culturally diverse people, be they business partners, clients, employees, suppliers or colleagues.

To give an example, one of the fundamental differences between Asian and Australian cultures is our communication style. In general terms, Australians often prefer direct and explicit communication, with a strong preference to get straight to the task at hand and obtain direct feedback.

This contrasts with the communication style of many Asian cultures, where there is a preference for indirect communications, a stronger focus on building relationships, the need to uphold ‘face’ and a preference for less direct feedback.

When establishing communication with a new Asian client or partner, taking yourself through these three phases – awareness, knowledge and skills – can help you to be more cross-culturally effective, help maximise opportunities and avoid misunderstandings.

Similarly, when building strong and trusted relationships with partners and clients from different cultural backgrounds, there is no one blueprint for success. However, the following tips may help ensure your cross-cultural relationships get off to the best possible start and remain on track:

 Take time to understand and critique cultural differences and invest time into building your personal awareness, knowledge and skills in working in culturally diverse situations

 Appreciate differences in communication styles (direct vs. indirect, low vs. high context)

 Be ready to share information about yourself and your level of responsibility within your organisation

 Be open to social invitations (to dinners etc.) as these are vital for building trusted relationships

 When organising meetings (be they face to face or virtual), allow plenty of time for small talk

 Be patient and don’t expect meetings to start (or run) on time in all instances

 Be respectful of hierarchy

 Know how to conduct yourself appropriately in a business meeting and take time to familiarise yourself with local business etiquette, which is often different from culture to culture.

Louise Dunn

Louise Dunn is the Director of Capability Development at Asialink Business, Australia’s National Centre for Asia Capability. Asialink Business provide practical training, information products, events and networking opportunities to help organisations and individuals do business with Asia.

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