There is a significant problem in corporate America today with foreign workers and it’s not the problem Donald Trump is obsessed with (that there are too many foreign workers). Instead, the problem, as I see it, is that American businesses are missing major opportunities with the foreign-born workers that they do have. And it’s because of what I call cultural blindness.
Despite the fact that American companies have been “global” for a very long time now, so many people today inside companies still misperceive and misunderstand cultural differences. They misperceive potential foreign-born workers, for example, as too “shy” or not “assertive” enough – when, in reality, and with a very moderate amount of training, these high performing individuals could be corporate leaders of tomorrow. But because of cultural blindness, companies misperceive intent, overlook potentially great managers and leaders, and fail to leverage the potential of the foreign-born “human capital” right under their nose.
From where I sit, here are the top 3 things that American employers tend to overlook in assessing and understanding foreign-born employees.
1. Small talk. In many cultures, it’s just not appropriate or acceptable to make small talk with someone you don’t know, and, especially, someone you don’t know who is above you in the corporate hierarchy. It can also feel impolite and even dangerous to openly express your opinion during small talk, especially if it could potentially conflict with the other person’s opinion. For example, if you express your allegiance toward a particular team or a point of view about any other topic without knowing that of your colleague, you might put them in the uncomfortable position of having to either suppress their own preference or express something that conflicts with yours. So, you can imagine how challenging it can be for someone from a non-small talk culture to try to make small talk successfully in a US corporate setting. You can also see how someone who then avoids making small talk can be seen as unfriendly or not a team player, when the reality is quite different.
2. Direct vs. Indirect communication style. The US is basically a “straight-shooter” style culture – where it’s culturally valued to tell it like it is. But this isn’t necessarily true around the world. For example, in Japan, people prefer to communicate indirectly, especially when it comes to a sensitive topic. To avoid inadvertently damaging a relationship or causing someone to lose face, people approach problems through subtle hints or general statements. If someone were to directly state a problem, it would make them look ungraceful, immature, and untrustworthy. But of course, from the perspective of the US culture, this more indirect style appears unclear, scattered, or even shifty – as if someone is “hiding” the truth.
3. Formality vs. Informality. Americans tend to be relatively informal in a business context. In fact, many people are quite surprised with the level of informality in American business, especially when communicating with superiors. Of course, this style too isn’t universal around the world. Many cultures are quite formal, especially when interacting with superiors. In general, Indian culture, for example, is quite formal. Indians typically greet their elders and superiors by title (Sir, Mr., Dr., Professor) and never by their first name. This is also the case at the university, where students act with extreme levels of deference and respect towards their professors.
So, as an American employer, you can perhaps see why you might interpret your Indian employee to be quiet or very formal, compared to your American colleagues, and perhaps then assume (mistakenly) that they then aren’t future leadership material for your company. And of course, this argument doesn’t just apply to India: many other cultures in East Asia and around the world are more formal than in the US.
To be honest, this discussion just really hits the tip of the iceberg of the different ways that American employers misinterpret cultural patterns of their subordinates. For American employers to succeed in selecting, training, inspiring, and keeping their top foreign-born talent, it’s high time for them too to start recognizing and appreciating cultural differences and accounting for these cultural differences in their leadership selection process.
Originally published on Inc.com
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