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Cultural awareness can avert perils and pitfalls

Published on Friday, 13 Jul 2012
Randall Peterson

One point I stress when teaching EMBA students about leadership is the need for a clear process for making business decisions. This is particularly important in organisations where people from different backgrounds and cultures work alongside each other, creating the potential for simple misunderstandings or more serious conflict.

Problems come from a variety of sources, impeding leadership initiatives and giving rise to performance issues. Even if executives have some exposure to different values and cultural overlays, there can be difficulties with their philosophy and day-to-day approach.

As an example, just consider how things like tradition, hierarchy and a sense of security are more highly valued in Asia than in the West. Business people, whatever their place of origin, are generally quick to acknowledge these differing traits. However, they don't always apply the lessons in dealings with colleagues, subordinates or counterparts.

At the most basic linguistic level, it can easily mean that an Asian "Yes, [I understand]" will be taken as a Western "Yes, [I agree]". And the steps or protocols which one person expects to follow in a management meeting, strategy session or negotiation can still surprise or confuse others.

This is not just an East-West thing: it exists between all cultures. As a psychologist by training, I examine the subject in detail when teaching senior executives taking the EMBA-Global Asia, showing how to avoid pitfalls. Generally speaking, the best advice when difficulties occur is to ask why something is happening and then see where there are shared views and similar criteria.

To emphasise the importance of such skills for future leaders, one of the EMBA's first courses is designed to give students a clearer view of their own outlook and predispositions. It involves a 360-degree review by their current employer, a personality assessment, and a personal development plan for the subsequent six months.

The idea is that a better understanding of one's individual strengths and weaknesses provides the framework for becoming a better communicator and a more effective leader.

It also lets us find out what people entering the programme should focus on to step up to the next level. Then, in small groups with executive coaches, we can look into what they do and why, help with problems, and improve areas of specific weakness.

Later, many students opt to take an elective on negotiation and bargaining, which revolves around concepts of conflict management and cultural awareness. My objective here is to steer executives away from the "I win, you lose" style of negotiation towards a broader-minded approach. People can achieve more starting from the premise that both sides can "win" by finding shared interests.

Randall Peterson is professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School (LBS)
As told to John Cremer

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