Developing intercultural skills - Intercultural Insights
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Intercultural & Business
Developing intercultural skills
April 9, 2015
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The development of intercultural skills has become a recognised factor in international cooperation at the Directorate General for Civil Aviation, which organised this conference to raise awareness among its staff. 

An initiative by the DGAC 

Fotolia_76809737_XS-3-300x205Odile Grisaud, head of the training department at the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC –Directorate General for Civil Aviation), which initiated this conference, explained that: “The DGAC is innately focused on multilateral cooperation. International civil aviation rules are formulated in liaison with all ICAO member states and those which concern Europe more specifically are discussed with all European countries. Aviation (air transport) is international by its very nature. 

The challenge for the DGAC clearly involves ensuring that French positions are understood and taken into account within an intercultural context. 

In view of the number of experts involved in Europe and abroad, it is necessary to improve the know-how and interpersonal skills of these experts, who are all excellent engineers but who are also very aware of the importance of interpersonal skills in order to be able to communicate more effectively with people from other cultures”. 

Conference with Benjamin Pelletier 

Conf-DGAC-3-300x256Against the backdrop of the increasing internationalisation of both companies and teams, Benjamin Pelletier, a consultant in intercultural management, has drawn up an overview for the DGAC of the various professional challenges related to intercultural relations within the context of international cooperation. If these are not sufficiently taken into account,
they can result in the failure of any cooperation project due to misunderstandings and incorrect interpretations of various behaviour.

I. Globalisation and new cultural interactions

Taking account of cultural codes 

While it is true that globalisation creates new cultural interactions, it is also a source of cultural faux pas. Whether amusing or disturbing, these can have negative consequences on the perceptions of the people, teams, companies or cultures concerned. 

1-Royal-en-blanc1-300x144As an example, when Ségolène Royal visited China in 2007, she   was dressed in white and could not have imagined the effectthis had on the Chinese. Far from being a minor matter, thisaspect of her clothing created a negative image and entirely the wrong impression. In China, the colour white represents mourning, in the same way as black does in France, and this perception is further accentuated by the fact that the population tend to be highly superstitious. The perception of a minor detail or behavioural aspect is therefore influenced by the cultural lens through which it is viewed. 

Cultural codes, body language, superstitions, beliefs and religion are all cultural factors which define our perceptions and views. It is also very important to know yourself and to be aware of your own cultural aspects and ways of interpreting things. This enables you to more easily put yourself in someone else’s position, to understand the way they think, their cultural weakness and therefore the way they are likely to interpret things. 

New interactions 

In our current global environment, intercultural challenges are increasing all the time. With globalisation, Westerners and North Americans have often believed that the world was a one-way street in which their cultural model, and particularly their business culture, should be imposed and applied elsewhere. However, for several decades now, new forms of interaction have been emerging. As an example, the cooperation between Brazil and Africa is a clear demonstration of the world’s “de-westernisation”. The “developed” countries are no longer the only ones interacting with the rest of the world. They in turn must adapt to their foreign contacts. The best example is that of China, which has introduced a number of technical and health standards which differ from those of the western countries, who must comply with these in order to enter the Chinese market. 

“Repatriation” trends 

Emerging problems are also making their appearance and have a significant impact on intercultural factors. “Repatriation” movements are much more frequent. Formerly, highly qualified talent moved abroad as the environment in their home country was not sufficiently conducive to innovation and creativity. Today however, available opportunities and the maturity of companies are resulting in a trend towards “repatriation”. 

New forms of expatriation 

New forms of expatriation are also appearing. Today, expatriates no longer see themselves as “superiors” in the host country, with a salary which is higher than the global average, living in splendid isolation in a comfortable little bubble with no form of adaptation to the local culture. They are increasingly signing “local” contracts to implement partnerships on an equal footing. This is also one of the key factors for success. 

3 conditions to effectively manage intercultural relations 

There are no scientific truths in the intercultural field. Instead, it’s more common to talk about trends, but nothing has been firmly established concerning the human aspects. Three conditions are necessary when managing intercultural relations:

  • Cultural humility
  • Cultural expertise, namely the accumulation of cultural information for a precise purpose
  • Intercultural skills

Analysing intercultural relations with regard to a number of key dimensions

In order to understand the main aspects of a culture, cultural dimensions make it possible to identify different interactions and perceptions existing between cultures. 

What is the place of individualism compared to collectivism within a culture? How is hierarchical distance perceived? Is the communication style more explicit or more implicit? These questions, provided as examples, come up when studying cultural dimensions*. Indeed, depending on the culture with which you are dealing, you need to avoid being too direct, to take account of posture, gestures and context in order to be understood and to understand the people you are speaking to. An embarrassing situation can quickly arise because of a small detail without you even being aware of this. To ensure effective communication, it is important to: 

  • Develop the art of observing people without judging them 
  • Understand and adapt: collect cultural information while at the same time limiting the expression of negative statements or ideas 
  • Take a long-term view where the relationship is concerned, and explain your cultural context to foreign partners 

III. From intercultural management to intercultural influence 

“A leader is a person whose ideas and actions influence the thoughts and behaviour of others. Through setting examples and through persuasion in addition to understanding the group’s objectives and desires, the leader becomes a key source of influence and change” ICAO, Human Factors Guidelines for Safety Audits Manual, 2002. 

However, being a leader in a multicultural environment requires a great deal of thought and preparation. Being aware of the existence of cultural differences is the first step towards understanding other cultures. In an international cooperation situation, mastering cultural influence means understanding the intrinsic operating methods of the culture and its individuals and being aware of intercultural differences. 

A good example: Samsung in Brazil  

The successful launch of Samsung’s operations in Brazil is noteworthy. The Koreans based their strategy on the fact that they were unfamiliar with Brazilian culture. Displaying humility and taking account of this aspect was one of the key conditions underpinning the success of their intercultural activities. 

Samsung sent a group of managers to Brazil with instructions to submerge themselves in Brazilian culture, to discover it, to forge contacts and build a network in order to generate goodwill with potential future partners. A year later, they had the vital cultural information they needed to penetrate the Brazilian market effectively. The Korean managers were then able to exercise influence in their host country thanks to their understanding of, and adaptation to local culture. Having taken onboard the intrinsic operating methods of their Brazilian contacts, they were able to get their messages across and make themselves understood. 

Their approach can be summed up as follows: 

  • Humility: being aware of cultural differences in order to ask the right questions and better understand the other culture 
  • A long-term view 
  • Influence: shaping a situation to their advantage 

After submerging themselves in the local culture, the Korean managers were able to manage a Brazilian team under the best possible conditions to meet their objectives. 

Intercultural influence: 4 principles 

The vital preconditions for exercising influence during international cooperation are therefore based on four principles: 

  • Indirect action well in advance  
  • An ongoing, long-term approach 
  • The capacity to put across arguments and convince 
  • Intercultural skills  

The challenge is therefore to be able to adapt your influence strategy to the environment in question. Humility, an analysis of the prevailing environment, the identification of strengths and weaknesses, cooperation and dialogue all make it possible to ensure that your strategy best matches the culture of those you are dealing with. 

Intercultural skills and international cooperation 

Conf-DGAC-2-300x287We have to keep in mind that the cultural aspect plays a major role during discussions. Benjamin Pelletier has brilliantly demonstrated that harmless gestures or behaviour can be interpreted differently in some cultures which approach things from a different cultural standpoint and can result in gaffes or even a failure in the cooperation process.

Humility is the watchword when attempting an understanding of a culture. Judgemental behaviour can be counter-productive. To succeed, total immersion in the host culture, an environmental analysis, a satisfactory understanding of the culture and cultural adaptation are all necessary. 

An intercultural management strategy which takes account of specific cultural characteristics is one of the key factors for success in international cooperation. 

Summary of the conference by Benjamin Pelletier, Akteos consultant, organised by Akteos for the DGAC on Tuesday 17/03/2015 

*The cultural aspects are examined in the Akteos Nomad profile

About author


Benjamin Pelletier

Benjamin Pelletier is a trainer in the field of intercultural management. He also teaches at the Ecole Centrale, at the Ecole des Ponts and at the Ecole de Guerre Economique. He is the author of numerous articles on the website Gestion des Risques Interculturels, of two novels published by Editions L'Olivier and of contributions in the Manuel d’intelligence économique, PUF, 2012 and the Cross-cultural Management Textbook, Amazon, 2012.

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