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How Do We Strengthen ‘Soft Skills’ in a Global Workplace?

Type: Articles
Topic: Organizational Culture and Structure
By Myriam Siftar
30 July 2019
cross-cultural workplace
Credit: istockphoto.com/Morsa Images

Leadership. Communication. Collaboration. Time management. Business leaders list these four “soft skills” as top targets for professional development. Fifty-seven percent of the business leaders surveyed for the LinkedIn 2018 Workforce Learning Report ranked soft skills as their most pressing training needs. Soft skills are not only more difficult to learn than hard skills, they are also less likely to “transfer” from training to the job. Why is this so?

Soft skills stem from longstanding habits, shaped by our personalities and life experiences. Does a person speak up, work well with others, and meet deadlines? These are traditionally framed as a question of character.

Hard skills reflect “what we know” while soft skills are firmly rooted in “who we are.” Can a leopard change its spots? If soft skills are considered innate, the answer is “no.”

But soft skills can be developed through training and practice. Adults can establish new habits and be mindful of how they communicate in the workplace. It’s not easy, but with the right supports in place, it’s possible.

For a global workforce, cultural differences add a whole new layer of complexity. A multicultural workplace teems with different ideas about leadership, communication, collaboration and time management. For example, a person who is considered assertive in her home culture may seem rude in a culture that values an indirect, diplomatic mode of speaking.

Acknowledging cultural differences is not the same as stereotyping. We all want the same things: respect, appreciation, a sense of achievement and security. But culture plays a significant role in shaping the soft skills needed to achieve these goals. And when a person has moved to a new cultural context, the skills they already posess may no longer be as relevant.

Culture will not always predict how people will behave, but it will strongly influence what they expect. Being aware of different cultural norms is the first step toward preventing the cultural conflicts that harm productivity.

Leadership

Beliefs about leadership reflect cultural expectations about authority in the workplace, particularly with respect to the decision-making process.

Japanese businesses tend to be hierarchical. Workers show formal respect to superiors. Violating the chain of command means going over a manager’s head or cutting colleagues out of the loop.

By contrast, Swedish workplaces have fewer taboos against breaking ranks. Colleagues typically interact casually and directly without as much regard for status, and flat org charts are more common in Sweden than in Japan. Therefore, a Japanese manager needs different “soft skills” than a Swedish manager to maintain authority and motivate staff.

Despite their formal differences, Swedish and Japanese businesses both prefer to make decisions through consensus, in contrast with typical US business behavior. Japanese decision-making, for example, occurs at the culmination of a process called “ringi.” Ringi requires agreement at each level of the corporate hierarchy before reaching top for final approval. Deciding takes a long time, but implementation is swift because this deliberative process secures buy-in at every level. Good leadership requires patience, perseverance and diplomacy.

In the U.S., decision-making tends to be top-down, after consultation with key advisors. Why? Americans value action and progress over deliberation. Achieving consensus takes too long. Good leadership means getting everyone on board after the decision is made and ensuring employees support the decision, even when they don’t agree with it. Understanding cultural differences around authority and decision-making will help a manager decide how best to motivate a multicultural team.

Communication

Managers need to provide feedback to help their team succeed. However, the unspoken rules for delivering feedback varies across cultures. Members of some cultures are accustomed to blunt, direct criticism; others expect a more indirect approach.

In Germany, a manager who matter-of-factly points out mistakes may seem perfectly reasonable. Her communication skills are appropriate to the German workplace. But in the U.S., her direct approach may embarrass and demotivate her staff.

We Americans pride ourselves on being forthright, but we expect a degree of indirectness when it comes to feedback. The typical corporate feedback model in the U.S. looks like a hamburger. The “meat” of the problem is sandwiched between layers of positivity: “I liked the introduction. The findings of the report need to be clarified. But overall you did a good job.” A German manager, on the other hand, typically serves up just the burger: “The findings section is unclear.” From the U.S. perspective, German feedback can feel abrupt and critical. For those accustomed to direct feedback, the American method obscures the “meat” of the criticism.

Without an awareness of cultural differences, hurt feelings and confusion around different expectations for feedback may be chalked up to a “personality conflict.” If cultural differences are recognized early on, business leaders can anticipate this problem and work to implement company-wide ground rules for delivering feedback.

Collaboration

How do you define the word team? North Americans usually define a team as “a group of individuals working toward a common goal.” In Europe, a team is more commonly “a group working toward a goal,” with less emphasis on the individual. In some Asian cultures, a team is “a group who is loyal to one another”—a whole different perspective.

What does collaboration look like for different cultures? Should a task be divided among teammates, each of whom works separately? Who assigns the tasks and ensures accountability? Should each team member expect input from the whole group, in regular group work sessions? If differences of opinion arise, is consensus necessary or does the “owner” of that area call the shots?

The answers depend in part on the nature of the task. But cultural expectations will play a role as well. And cultural differences will definitely come into play when acknowledging team success. Americans tend to recognize individuals for exceptional contributions to a team project; in Japan or China, calling a person out for special recognition is less welcome and even embarrassing. How to reward a team has a lot to do with how a team is defined in the first place.

Time management

Anthropologist Edward Hall used the terms “monochronic” and “polychronic” to describe different perspectives on time. No culture is purely one or the other; the two are endpoints of a continuum. Within a particular culture, you’ll find plenty of individuals on both sides, but in general, expectations for ideal methods of time management will vary.

Monochronic cultures view time as a straight line that can be broken up into sections. Scheduling specific tasks in blocks of time is the preferred mode of work. Deadlines are important and punctuality shows respect and self-discipline. On the other hand, polychronic cultures tend to view time as flexible, expanding or contracting depending on the activity at hand. Schedules provide guidelines, not rules: they can be rearranged according to shifting priorities. In a polychronic culture, if you’re late to a meeting because you ran into someone on the way over, your host will understand. He’s also operating polychronically. He’ll pick something up and make progress on it until you get there.

The U.S. tends toward the monochronic ideal, although one could argue that always-on technologies are turning us into multi-taskers (for better or for worse) thus shifting to a more flexible relationship with time. Still, in a multicultural workplace, different approaches to time management can result in conflicts over scheduling and different ideas about the importance of meeting deadlines.

Cultural awareness supports soft skills training

Soft skills training challenges us to recognize our habits and behaviors, understand their impact on others, and change them in order to work more effectively.  Cultural awareness training enhances soft skills by providing tools for questioning whether our assumptions about “the right way to do things” are universally shared.

A skeptic might ask, “What if it’s not culture that is causing conflicts? What if it’s just personality?” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. In either case, co-workers need to overcome differences in order to be effective. But when a cultural conflict escalates, and participants frame it as a “personality conflict,” it becomes much harder to resolve. Conflicts harden into dysfunction, and productivity suffers. Human resources professionals might eventually need to intervene through mediation, not realizing that what they are dealing with now was neither inevitable nor “personal” when it first arose.

Cultural awareness is essential in a multicultural workplace. Developing a global mindset means understanding and leveraging cultural differences to strengthen the soft skills needed in a global marketplace. Organizations should take cultural differences into account when shaping organizational culture and on-boarding talent. Cultural awareness provides a competitive advantage by reducing misunderstandings, fostering successful communication and increasing productivity.

Myriam Siftar Myriam Siftar is President and CEO of MTM LinguaSoft, providing “made-to-measure” translation, localization and cultural consulting services to global businesses since 2003. To learn more about technical and marketing translation for digital, print, and multimedia content, visit https://www.mtmlinguasoft.com or contact Myriam via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/myriamsiftar.

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