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How Can We Master Intercultural Success?

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Photo Credit © Michael Froehls
Written by Michael Froehls

This is the second in a series of interviews with Dr. Deirdre Mendez on Intercultural Success and how you can achieve it. Whether you plan to study or work abroad, or never leave home but are exposed to foreign cultures in your job, mastery of intercultural success might make or break your career. Today, we will focus on the importance of intercultural success and some misconceptions about it.

What do you think is the biggest culture-related mistake Americans make when working or studying abroad?

The US is so large that it’s easy for Americans to be unaware of other cultures. This is a problem that Europeans, for instance, don’t have, because they’re so close to each other geographically. Americans who haven’t lived or worked abroad may be surprised by cultural differences when they encounter them for the first time.

One mistake Americans make is thinking that people in other countries who have learned English or speak it natively will be culturally similar as well. English language ability may mask huge cultural differences, so the fact that English is so widely spoken can be a disadvantage for Americans.

At the same time, there are people in every country who respond to cultural difference by stereotyping and rejecting alternative perspectives. Being American doesn’t make a person more or less able to develop cultural agility. It’s more a question of mindset—the way each individual approaches and processes cultural difference.

When I went to university, I focused on “hard” skills like finance and accounting. For me, “this intercultural stuff” was rather soft, something anyone could pick up on the fly. What is your take on the value for a student or young professional of becoming culturally proficient?

I work in a business school, and I’m familiar with this perception. I always begin my classes by pointing to studies that estimate M&A failure rates at 70-90 percent. Because top consulting firms recognize culture’s role in this problem, they are now trying to develop ways to recognize cultural difference in corporations and design algorithms for predicting failure due to cultural integration problems. Cultural agility is important to business and the global economy—that’s all there is to it.

For students, entering the workforce with intercultural skills has huge advantages. They can be a differentiator in recruiting and lead to international opportunities, but even a student working in their home town for a local company will need to deal with co-workers who think differently from the way they do. Cultural training gives people the ability to size people up quickly, understand where they’re coming from, and communicate effectively.

Let me push back a bit. Can cultural agility be taught or a) does it come naturally or b) can it only be learned by the school of hard knocks? I am indirectly referring to the debate on “acquiring a global mindset,” on whether a global mindset can be learned or not.

That’s a good question. Cultural agility is a learned skill—we get it through exposure to distinct mindsets. People living in multicultural environments get that exposure from their surroundings, and people in multicultural families get it from interacting with family members. But although experience is a vital component, experiencing cultural difference without an informed understanding can lead to stereotyping and resistance, and there’s no guarantee that experience alone will lead to cultural agility.

So, my cultural training involves a combination of academic and experiential learning. The academic teaching offers a way of thinking about cultural diversity that helps maintain openness to difference. Experiential exercises give participants a chance to react viscerally to intercultural experiences and then re-examine their reactions analytically. This combination can be very profound, even life changing—one reason why I love this work.

What is the biggest misconception about intercultural success?

I think the biggest misconception is that intercultural collaborations require compromise—that each side needs to give up something it values. Actually, this lose-lose approach leads to resentment and limits creativity. A better goal is “cultural synergy.” On a culturally-diverse collaboration, different cultural orientations give each partner unique skills and abilities that bring unique value to the table. When an intercultural collaboration leverages these strengths and achieves cultural synergy, both sides benefit. Intercultural success means win-win partnerships where each side respects and values the other and neither has to sacrifice something they value. Helping intercultural teams reach cultural synergy is one of the most exciting parts of my work.

Please remind us of your website where readers can learn more about you and what you offer

My website www.deirdremendez.com  explains my approach. It has a link to my book, The Culture Solution, which is a self-guided cultural training tool, as well as resources for practicing what you learn from the book, and a reading list on cultural agility. 

Thank you for your time, Deirdre.

Portrait pic of Dr. Deirde Mendez

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Dr. Deirdre Mendez is an intercultural consultant, trainer, and educator who helps international collaborations resolve culture-based conflict. Her ARC System™ of cultural analysis empowers managers to anticipate and manage intercultural problems to minimize risk, lower employee turnover, and achieve superior performance of international partnerships. She is currently Director of the Center for Global Business at the McCombs School of Business. At UT, she teaches international business and management to executives, MBA students, and undergraduates in the U.S. and abroad. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics.

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