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Impatience Undermines Your Cultural Intelligence

davidlivermore | June 19th, 2012 2 Comments


Many tribal cultures don’t have a word for “boredom”. Sitting under a tree for hours at a time, waiting in line to get water from the well, or walking four days to a nearby village for medical help is just a way of life. But as technological advances penetrate societies all over the globe, impatience is mounting everywhere.

Google slowed down the speed of search results by four tenths of a second to see how it impacted our googling. The result: 8,000,000 fewer searches a day! 1 out of 4 people abandon a webpage that doesn’t load within four seconds. An email that doesn’t get a response within 24 hours is considered unresponsive. And one USA Today study found that most North Americans won’t wait in line for more than 15 minutes.

But “impatience” + “cross-cultural” don’t work well together. Cross-cultural relationships and projects inevitably take more time, more effort, and more patience. Slowing down often goes against the grain of what we’re trying to accomplish.

A volunteer construction team from the U.S. traveled to Liberia to put a roof on a Monrovian school. The Liberians were extremely grateful for the N. Americans’ generosity but the first day into the project, the Liberians expressed concern about whether the new roof would be well-suited to the Monrovian climate and environment. When they voiced their concern, the volunteers replied, “Look. You have to trust us. We’ve worked on buildings like this all over the world. We’re only here for 6 days. So the only way we’ll get this done is if we stick with our plan.”

Three months later, a monsoon came in off the Atlantic coast and the new roof came crashing down. A couple Liberian students died and several others were injured. Sometimes our “efficient”(impatient!) approach is not so great after all.

Just about everything takes longer when working and relating cross-culturally. Communication, trust-building, and just getting things done requires more effort and perseverance. Whether it’s dealing with long queues when traveling, merging different technology systems, or trying to get to the bottom of a conflict, understanding and effectiveness come more slowly when different cultures are involved.

Patience needs to be factored in from the very beginning of any cross-cultural project. Long before the U.S. construction team ever arrived in Liberia, a more thorough process of determining what the need was and how to best meet it would have been valuable. For a fraction of the cost, the volunteers could have sent money to have local builders put on a new roof. Or with a deeper level of analysis, they may have concluded that the roof wasn’t really the problem but instead, was a symptom of deeper problems of poverty and conflict that could be better addressed by partnering with development experts.

Full disclosure. I’m terribly impatient. I hate waiting in lines, I calculate which driving lane is moving fastest, and I want things to happen quickly and according to plan. But on the rare occasion when I exercise patience, the end result is almost always better: the partnership is richer, the project gains wider acceptance, and the money invested goes further.

In a world of instant information and feedback, it’s counterintuitive to step back and move more slowly. But slow is the new fast when you’re working across cultures. Take a deep breath and trust that something far bigger and better can be accomplished when you patiently persevere through the hard work of listening, understanding, and discovering the possibilities that may otherwise go unnoticed when rushing to the finish line.


Overcoming Delays: Managing Follow-Through Across Cultures

davidlivermore | April 10th, 2012 10 Comments

I can eloquently explain why some cultures value punctuality and efficiency  (“Clock-Time” cultures) while others place greater value on relationships and flexibility (“Event-Time” cultures). But get me off stage and I’m not nearly so patient handling these differences myself.

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a nut case with expecting timely follow-through. But in my defense, I work in a world where people expect me to deliver projects on time.

I understand the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of this cultural difference. But simply appreciating the differences isn’t enough. For those of us who have to live and function according to deadlines and schedules, we have to learn how to effectively and respectfully work with individuals and cultures that don’t share our clock-oriented approach.

Here are a few suggestions. I’m hoping you’ll chime in with some of your own!

1. Manage the Relationship
In the “project management” world, it’s all about managing the process. You need to define the objective, get the right people on the job, assigns the tasks and oversee the process.

But most cultures around the world approach tasks and trust-building within the context of relationship. Most of us know that, but we often overlook it in the midst of a project. In these cases, managing the relationship is the most important part of the “project”. Developing consensus about the process, working on the tasks together, and regularly talking it all through might seem inefficient to some of us; but it’s actually how projects most effectively get completed in most cultures.

Beware. Pretending to build a relationship simply to get something done will be sniffed out right away. The intent has to be genuine.

2. Save Face
Most of us are familiar with the importance of saving face—maintaining someone’s honor and dignity, particularly in the presence of others. Individuals from “saving-face” cultures are taught not to “stand out” from the crowd.

Consider how “saving face” plays into getting things done. Blunt critique or effusive praise are ineffective. Instead, consensus, group goals, and indirect communication are typically what work best.

Frankly, we can apply some of this to any individual. Few things make me more defensive than getting an email from someone that starts right off with “I’m really FRUSTRATED and UPSET” blah, blah, blah. But this is even more important for many cultures around the world, where the importance of harmonious interactions are crucial for effectiveness and productivity.

3. Create Value and Increase Urgency
Accomplishing tasks on time is largely about motivation. In what Piers Steel calls the Procrastination Equation, he names “Expectancy” and Value” as the two most important contributors to motivation. The problem is, we often assume, What motivates me, motivates others.

Culture plays a strong role in how we’re motivated. Stop and consider what kind of value completing this project has for the other parties involved. What are the benefits for meeting the deadline (or the consequences for not doing so)? Extrinsic motivators like financial rewards may play a part in motivating someone to get something done on time, but a far more sustainable motivation is when there’s intrinsic interest in the project and a desire to be part of something like this in the future.

4. Check-in Periodically
Ask questions along the way to indirectly get a pulse on what kind of progress is being made. For individuals coming from cultures described as “high uncertainty avoidance” cultures, they may not want to speak up and ask for help. If they don’t know what to do, the project stalls.

The importance of saving-face and indirect communication doesn’t mean we should avoid explicit understanding about roles and responsibilities. “Someone needs to do XYZ”, or “We all need to play a part in ___” won’t get us anywhere. Create the understanding together, determine who (an individual or team) will be accountable for it, and then check in along the way to see what you can do to help.

5. Evaluate the role of Power Distance
Be sure to consider how the perceived importance of status and authority may influence what occurs. How does this person perceive you and your level of authority?  Do you need to bring in your superior to help get things moving? Do you need to talk to a superior on the other side?

Use this very judiciously. You don’t want to start going above and around people. But understand how strongly “status” can influence the situation. Most of us are quick to drop what we’re doing when the boss asks us to do something. This reality is multiplied many times over in a high power distance society.

6. Breathe
As much as I hate to admit it, few things become irreversible because of a missed deadline. Take a deep breath and consider this in the whole scope of life.

But for those procrastinators who are gloating in that acknowledgement—beware. I’ve silently decided not to work with some individuals or organizations when I know that follow-through is vital and I just can’t risk it…or deal with the added stress.

Every situation is different. We can’t really simplify “task completion across cultures” to 5-7 steps. That’s why my colleagues and I spend most of our energy helping people develop an overall capability of cultural intelligence so they can adapt their strategy for each specific situation. But hearing the practical solutions of others can sometimes unlock new ideas for how to work and relate with cultural intelligence.

I hope you’ll add 1-2 ideas of your own. Let me know what you think (the sooner the better!).