• Don’t Get On? Change The Way You Think


    I’m on the Paris Metro. It’s crowded. There’s no room to sit and everybody seems to be doing their own thing and ignoring everyone around them. Standing there, cramped and tired, negative thoughts arise. ‘The French are such selfish people.’ Then, if I’m sensible, other thoughts arise.

    • The French AREN’T like this. SOME French may be.

    • What do THEY think of ME?

    • Can I turn my NEGATIVE thoughts into POSITIVE ones? (for example: The statement, ‘Some French people focus on their own interests first.’ can become, ‘Most French people are very considerate of strangers and other people.’ And from there I can create a strategy. ‘Ask for help and someone will always give it to you. But don’t expect it if you don’t ask.’)

    Culture isn’t rocket science. It’s about understanding how other communities approach life and business and adapting to their style to get the results you want.

    One immediate question trainees often ask is, ‘Me adapt to them?’ ‘Why don’t they adapt to me?’ The answer is it has to be a two way street and the person with the greatest knowledge and experience may need to make the first step. My experience is that the 80/20 rule applies. If I make a 20% adaptation to my partner’s style, without compromising my own values or cash flow, there is a most often an up to 80% adaptation by the other side.

    I always remember the example of Gareth, a 27 year old accountant moving to Zurich. He was zippy and lippy and extremely casual. He was renting a flat from a fairly formal management consultant in Zurich who was not impressed with Gareth’s style. So I explained that in Switzerland, as in most other countries, a more formal communication style is synonymous with respect. He adapted and the relationship progressed with no problems.

    That’s a personal example. What about a business example? There are hundreds. Let’s start with a simple formula. Do markets work on relationships or successful business deals? The answer is both but sometimes the relationship predominates. We all like a good relationship with clients but some countries prefer to build it through a series of successful business transactions. With others, build the relationship first and you get the deal. As a Korean business colleague once said, ‘Build the relationship right and business follows as day follows night.’

    So here’s the business example. A British firm wanted to buy into a Spanish company in the same field. The Spanish execs were coming to visit. The plan was they’d arrive at East Midlands airport, get a cab to the office, have a meeting and a buffet lunch, visit the factory and then get a cab back to the airport and go home. Good efficient day’s work. Maybe OK for a deal-based market but not for Spain. So together we rethought the plan.

    The boss extended the trip to two days. On Day 1 the company picked up the Spaniards personally at the airport and drove them to the best hotel in town. The former chair knew the Spanish boss and provided cocktails and dinner at his home for the Spanish team and the British directors. The British directors drove the Spaniards to the hotel and joined them for breakfast the next morning. Did they go to the office? No. The area is a noted beauty spot so the director took his Spanish colleagues and showed them the sights. Then they had lunch in a Michelin starred fish and chip restaurant (yes, there is one) and finally to the office and the factory for an hour or so before going back to the airport and seeing them off.

    The next call I got from my clients was could I recommend a good Spanish translator for the contract? Job done.

    My role as a consultant? To listen to my client, advise them of how to best to deal with their new international customer and help them evolve a strategy. Spaniards, you see, know all about powerpoints and factories and balance sheets. They wanted to see what kind of people they were going to be dealing with. The relationship was paramount. By allowing them to see what they were like through a ‘social’ programme the deal was sealed.

    That’s how cultural training works. Here’s another example.

    A friend of ours lives on a mountain in Spain. She is well liked by the local community. A lodger tried to sue her, wrongly, and called the police to investigate. As they climbed the mountain to find her house, they called at the local farms for directions. They got such good reports about her from the locals that by the time they reached the top of the mountain they agreed, there was nothing to investigate. The complainer was in the wrong. The lesson? Cultivate good relations.




    Here’s an exercise adapted from CULTURAL AWARENESS (OUP) by me and Susan Stempleski.

    Thanks too to Rob Williams.

    • Think of a country you have been to.

    • What stories do you tell about it when you get back?

    • How many stories are POSITIVE about the people and how many are NEGATIVE?

    • What do you think THEY thought about YOU?

    • How can you turn your NEGATIVE stories into POSITIVE ones, which convey a positive impression of the place you visited?

    • Now think of some of the clichés we often apply to people of other countries. For example: ‘The British are cold and distant.’ With a bit of thought that can become, ‘Some British are quite reserved and value their privacy.’ And with a bit more thought, it becomes a strategy. – ‘Take the first step. It usually gets a good response.’


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