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Cultural Intelligence's Value for Global Payroll

By Simma Lieberman

ManPhoneBridgeWhether in person, by phone, or using virtual technology, working with people who are from different cultures can be both challenging and exciting. There is always something new to learn about doing business in today’s global market. 

But it takes more than attending a workshop about a specific culture. Employees in organizations need to have the ability to do business with people from any culture—in their own country or another. Imagine taking a class on doing business in Korea, but just as you are getting ready to depart, you receive a text message: “Change in plans. Rebook your flight for Bangalore, India.”

The capacity to work effectively with groups of people from any culture is known as cultural intelligence. In other words, people with a high cultural intelligence can do business with a culture they know nothing about and will be able to observe, empathize, and be flexible enough to form relationships despite the language barrier.  

Cultural Intelligence is a learned skill. It provides the lens to look at the world through other people’s eyes and experience—the context in which people make decisions and behave. Organizational learning that includes cultural intelligence helps people to break down biases, question assumptions, and prepare one to be comfortable in a new situation. To create a workforce where everyone is culturally intelligent, it needs to be embedded into the overall corporate culture and become the norm, not the exception.

Vision, Strategy, and Cultural Intelligence

An organizational approach begins with a vision, strategy, and high-level training with the executive team. The approach should define measures for success, hold people accountable for their behavior and performance, and develop a system to assess progress. Cultural intelligence may begin with the countries where people live but goes beyond a nationalistic label. Someone working with an American would not find it useful to make a broad characterization of all Americans based on a few individuals from one location. For example, imagine yourself in a room with a team of people from Boston; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Portland, Maine; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; and Pittsburgh. Your cultural intelligence would face an immediate test. 

As the global payroll industry adapts new technology and works in many new environments to maintain compliance with a changing regulatory environment, it makes sense to be aware of how various cultures and groups work best with problem-solving, workflow issues, even how to take direction from the United States corporate environment. For example, making eye contact is a culturally unique form of communication. 

Generally, people in the United States and Middle East use eye contact when communicating and it shows respect. However in some Asian countries, such as Japan, eye contact is considered disrespectful so there may not be eye contact. If you are from an eye-contact culture working on a project with a non-eye-contact culture and are not aware of the difference, you may feel insulted and disrespected, distrust each other, and be reluctant to collaborate and share information.

Building new internal structures to effectively pay employees globally requires that people work together globally.

Cultural Intelligence Know-How

When people in organizations develop a high level of cultural intelligence, they have the skills to ask the right questions, give the right answers, and work with people who are from any culture or cultural mix that can include ethnicity, age, religion, economic background, sexual orientation, or any other group. 

An advanced level of cultural intelligence will enable members of a workforce to quickly learn what they need to know to develop relationships, observe cultural cues, and adapt their behavior to work with people around the world. 

Raising the level of cultural intelligence is a continuous learning process. There is always room for growth as our ways of doing business change. New considerations must include acceptable styles of communication related to the communication channel. Email and text messages are notorious for lacking context and often injecting greater informality than might occur in person. When this becomes cross-cultural, even greater sensitivity to cultural norms must apply. Organizations that value diversity and inclusion can benefit from assessing their overall cultural intelligence and listening to their stakeholders to determine where they need to grow stronger. According to the Harvard Business Review, a high level of cultural intelligence is a core competency for business success in the 21st Century. 

Some areas that show the benefits of cultural intelligence are listed below. You’ll need to know some specifics about each person’s culture while at the same time not assuming everyone is the same or observes the same rituals as other people in their country of national origin or religion.

Cultural Considerations

  • Become familiar with the names and traditions of national and religious holidays. You don’t want to schedule a meeting with people in Beijing only to discover that it’s their Chinese New Year. When working with one individual as opposed to a large group, ask if the holiday is a consideration. That person may decide to work or take a conference call. 
  • Dietary restrictions. Most people will like that you took the time to be aware of their dietary preferences.
  • Knowing the right pronunciation of holiday names and traditional greetings will go a long way toward building a trusting relationship. If it’s difficult for you to pronounce, write it phonetically and practice.
  • Learn how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” and “how are you?” in other languages. Most people appreciate that you made the effort and see it as a sign of respect.

If you work for a U.S.-based multinational organization where English is the common language but not the native language of someone you’re speaking with, change the pace of your delivery and clarify terminology to eliminate potential obstacles to getting the work done on time.

Sometimes the same words or gestures may have different meanings in different parts of the world. Not being aware of these possibilities can create miscommunication and misunderstandings that result in expensive mistakes. In Korea, many people will nod their heads or say yes to indicate that they hear you. In the United States, many people take a head nod as an agreement. You could walk away from a discussion assuming there is agreement and take action based on that assumption, only to find out later that was not true.

To develop a culturally intelligent organization, start to practice these behaviors, train your employees to do the same, and hold them accountable. 

Six Ways to Raise Your Cultural IQ 

1. Decide to be curious and interested in learning about other cultures.
Don’t assume that there is only one way to get work done or that your way is the best way. Are you willing to take a risk, observe other people’s behaviors, and ask questions in appropriate ways? If you’re not interested or willing to view situations from another perspective, it won’t matter how many countries you visit or diversity potlucks you attend.

2. Find out how different cultures do business.
Do they tend to be more relationship- or task-oriented? If they are relationship-oriented you’ll want to show an interest in them as people, understand appropriate small talk, and ask how they are before you talk business. If they are more task-oriented, you’ll want to quickly focus on the main purpose. In general, the United States tends to be a more task-oriented culture, while Latin American countries tend to be more relationship-oriented. If you are from the United States and tend to be more task-oriented, you’ll be more successful doing business in Latin America if you learn to slow down, get to know the people you are working with, and not push for a quick resolution. If you don’t adapt, you may be viewed as impatient and uncaring and not a person to do business with.

3. Develop an awareness of self in relation to others.
Identify specific ways in which your own cultural background and experiences have influenced your perspective and how other people’s behaviors are determined by their culture and experience. Look for differences and similarities. Be mindful of the fact that not every person from a particular culture thinks the same and that there are differences based on generations, economics, etc. 

Even after you do research about the culture of team members, customers, vendors, or suppliers, be aware of the fact that two people from China may be very different based on their age, gender, and economic background. 

Becoming aware of yourself in relation to others is a reminder to not assume everyone thinks like you or that someone who looks different than you may share common interests. 

We are all products of our experiences and environments as well as the experiences and opinions of people we’ve grown up around. That’s true for other people, and if someone has different experiences, they will look at people and situations differently.

You may be from a generation and culture where people address everyone by their first names. You show respect by treating them like an equal no matter their gender, age, or title. However, your international colleague may be from a generation and culture that are  more formal and address others by title and last name. It would be considered disrespectful to call people at work by their first names. 

A best practice in business communication is to hone a practice of listening and observing. If you’re talking to someone in India or Malaysia and they address you by last name, you would do the same. You can later request that they use your first name, and they may allow you to do the same after you have worked together and established a relationship.

4. Make your mind a clean slate.
When you are observing other cultures, do so from a learning and objective mindset. If you find yourself being judgmental, do a thought intervention. Reframe your inner conversation by thinking, “That’s interesting. I want to know more.” This also means being extra conscious of your own biases and the need to make people who do things differently wrong.

5. Develop an awareness of your biases toward other cultures and traditions.
Be conscious of your initial reaction when you’re talking to someone in another country who speaks English with an accent. Do you give them the same level of customer service as someone who sounds like you? Do you give his or her opinions the same weight, and do you pay the same attention as you would someone you know?

Learn and practice ways to break away from those biases. Awareness without practice keeps people culturally ignorant. 

6. Put yourself in situations with people from other cultures.
Use Global Payroll  magazine as a source to research other cultures, and then do your own research. Attend cultural events, read books, and watch films (not just documentaries) that take place in other cultures. 

As you get to know people from different cultures, ask them if they would mind sharing information about their experiences and the challenges they have working with cultures different from their own. You’ll have an idea of what you need to do to help others navigate your culture.

Leaders in organizations have a responsibility to model behavior and educate and engage the whole organization in the process to make global payroll run smoothly.