This is the first 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.
Dr. Mendez, you’re the Director of the Center of Global Business (CGB) at the University of Texas at Austin, more specifically at the McCombs School of Business. Tell me about your work.
We work to increase international offerings and connections at the McCombs School. Our primary goal is to enhance the global adaptability of our students and the businesspeople we work with and prepare them for success in the global workplace. So naturally, some of our programs focus on teaching cultural agility.
You have also taught intercultural management for many years. As a speaker, educator, and business author, why is the topic of intercultural success so important to you?
I first experienced cultural difference living abroad, and it’s fascinated me ever since. One of the reasons I came to academia after consulting for two decades was the chance to offer students the same intercultural skills I’d been teaching executives. I loved the idea of preparing young people to enter the workforce with skills for solving culture-based problems so they could anticipate and avoid the problems I was seeing in my consulting work. Given that failed global ventures cost global companies billions of dollars annually, this was an exciting opportunity.
How exactly would you define intercultural success?
For me, intercultural success means achieving goals on collaborations with people who have diverse attitudes, expectations, and behaviors. People with cultural agility are good at seeing situations from others’ point of view—through “cultural lenses” that are different from their own. They’re good at recognizing the culture-based motivations for other people’s behavior and how they’ll respond to different kinds of input. And they’re willing to acknowledge that their own way is not necessarily better because it’s different.
Real cultural success requires more than just cultural awareness, though. It requires an ability to predict and avoid culture-based problems, and to solve problems that arise. Culturally-informed managers must also be good at deconstructing intercultural conflict to help everyone see that people’s behavior is based on cultural norms rather than aggression, apathy, or malicious intent.
When I think about intercultural success, the first picture that comes to mind is somebody working in a foreign country. But then I realize, no, no, even in your home country intercultural issues are of high relevance for many employees. Am I correct?
Absolutely. There are countless sub-cultures within any country, based on factors like ethnicity, region, and social class, to name just a few. When I teach Texas executives who supervise employees from New York, the cultural differences they describe can be as significant as international differences. And there are consultants charging huge fees to teach baby boomers how to manage millennials, two age-based sub-cultures we hear a lot about here in the US.
The field of cultural competence is increasingly merging with the field of diversity and inclusion, for this reason. When one of my well-traveled students is over-confident that they’ve mastered the ability to accept cultural difference, I ask them how they feel about people from the other political party or the other part of town, whatever that might be. Cultural difference is actually much harder to deal with close to home, and this has huge repercussions for the workplace.
You have taught many foreign students here at UT. Do you perceive country or regional differences in the ease of adapting to the way things are being done in Texas? Does a certain cultural or language background make it easier or more difficult for a foreign student to succeed at UT?
Foreign students do great at UT! I’m always impressed by their willingness and ability to adapt to US norms. I don’t think success is based on a particular native language or country. It depends more on how curious they are about new ways of thinking and living and whether they see difference as interesting or threatening. Students from any country can be successful if they see exploring a new cultural environment as an adventure.
Let’s take a break here. Do you have a 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.
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.