Many years ago, while consulting with the Customer Service unit of a consumer products company, I came across a book by Jan Carlzon, then president of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), called “Moments of Truth.” This phrase, which has now entered the business vocabulary, described the contact between a customer and a company representative that can profoundly impact the customer’s impression of the product and/or the company. In the book, this is how Carlzon described it:
“Last year, each of our 10 million customers came in contact with approximately five SAS employees, and this contact lasted an average of 15 seconds at a time. Thus, SAS is ‘created’ 50 million times a year, 15 seconds at a time. These 15 million ‘moments of truth’ are the moments that ultimately determine whether SAS will succeed or fail as a company. They are the moments when we must prove to our customers that SAS is their best alternative.”
Those of us working globally have many interactions with different stakeholders coming from different cultures. They include customers, vendors, subordinates, bosses, and colleagues in the various places where we do business. Some of these interactions could certainly be described as “moments of truth,” when the outcomes of these interactions can lead to a more positive path and ultimately a productive and effective relationship – or its opposite.
I’ve identified nine such sets of interactions or “hot spots” where your cultural intelligence will be put to the test. Your ability to handle these interactions effectively will help you to survive and thrive as a global leader.
Here’s the list. These are not sequential, although clearly the first two can make or break a potential relationship you are trying to establish. Some of these interactions are one-on-one, others are with a group. The specific tactics you use will also depend on the characteristics of the person or group you are interacting with; for example, greeting a male senior executive in Japan will be different than greeting a young female professional.
1. Greeting someone
2. Establishing rapport
3. Leading a team
4. Conducting a meeting/participating in a meeting
5. Providing instructions or guidance; coaching and teaching
6. Resolving disagreements and conflicts
8. Motivating others
9. Giving and receiving feedback
For example, Lucy Kellaway, the acerbic columnist of the Financial Times, wrote a column recently about the challenges of greeting people from different cultures. She was giving a talk primarily to Asian women at a conference in Singapore and she was at a loss as to how to greet the various attendees at the conference:
“In the old days, the principle was when-in-Rome. So when actually in Rome you kissed on both cheeks anyone you knew reasonably well. In Holland, it was three cheeks. In Russia you might expect a crushing bear hug, in Japan a nod and in India hands clasped and a namaste. In the US and Germany you could look forward to a bonecrusher of a handshake, in the Middle East something more like a limp fish.
“Global business has made matters more complicated. We no longer know whose culture trumps whose. Is it the host country’s? Is it the majority in the room? As no one seems to know, what tends to happen is a general confusing, embarrassing free-for-all. We live in a permanent state of hello hell.”
She then adds:
“Now an even more unwelcome form of greeting has arrived: the hug. This is how young Anglo-Saxons routinely greet each other outside work, but now they have started doing it in the office too. The hug represents far too much touching for my liking, but is also devilishly hard to get right: there is the full hug, the side hug, and the hug accompanied by a slap on the back.
“In my other job as a non-executive director, hello hell has got so bad that I find myself dreading the start of every meeting. Diversity might be a good thing on a board, but diversity of greeting is deplorable. My European colleagues are confident and enthusiastic kissers, as is one of the British women non-execs, while various of my male colleagues seem to dislike it as much as I do. Which means I often end up kissing some of the directors but not others – which seems very wrong indeed.”
Rather tongue-in-cheek (I think), she proposes a Global Greetings Protocol, where the only permissible greeting in a business setting would be a handshake. If it were only that simple.
Given the research on our subconscious biases and first impressions, thinking through your approach to greeting people from other cultures is, I believe, enormously important, and deserves a great deal of thought on your part on how to approach and greet someone from another culture.
Greeting someone, of course, is just one of the key interaction hot spots (see above) that can make or break your effectiveness as a global leader. I have three pieces of advice on how you can benefit from these interactions. First, understand what your “default mode” is in each of these situations. Most of us have a preferred way of approaching certain interpersonal situations based on our experiences and our own natural inclinations. Keep in mind that your preferred way may also be influenced by cultural assumptions and norms. For example, Americans and Germans like to resolve conflicts by being very direct and raising issues in a straightforward way – to “cut to the chase,” as the expression goes. So what’s your typical modus operandi when you’re trying to resolve a conflict or disagreement? You might be thinking, it depends on who the person is. Yes, of course, and that is a reasonable response; nonetheless, you are likely to have a preferred approach, one that you use other things being equal.
Second, consider the cultural background of the person or group you will interact with. As mentioned above, most of us will recognize that we will need to adjust our approach depending on the specific characteristics of the person or group we are interacting with (e.g., their age, gender, position in the organization, educational level). What I am suggesting is that you include culture as another dimension to consider. For example, Hannah is a manager of a global IT consulting company who was recently appointed to lead a team of Indian consultants in Bangalore. Hannah has a reputation as a good leader who likes to empower and delegate. But aware of the cultural expectations of her Indian staff, Hannah has had to adjust her style to make sure that she is more directive and explicit about her communication, at least initially.
Third, adjust your approach so that it is culturally appropriate for that person or group. What this means is that you will have to develop a repertoire of approaches, and not always rely on your default mode, difficult as that may be at times. We naturally gravitate to behaviors that either come naturally to us or that we have been used to because we have been doing it for a long time. The challenge for many global leaders is not only to stop and think about other cultures, but also to go into manual mode and use those behaviors that are most appropriate for that culture. For example, this may mean that you don’t always look a person directly in the eye in a culture where doing this with very senior executives may not be considered appropriate.
This also means that you may have to practice some new behaviors and, as Molinsky so eloquently describes in his book Global Dexterity, expand your personal comfort zone. It’s not always easy to do this, but you can make a conscious effort by practicing some new behaviors incrementally.
For example, Feng was a Chinese student in my class who was not used to speaking up in the classroom. In China, students are not expected to raise hands, nor are class discussions encouraged. As a result, when she signed up for her MBA classes, she felt overwhelmed and intimidated. In advising her, we worked out a goal of being a more active participant in the class. She started out by writing down a question beforehand that she would ask the professor. So when, towards the end of a lecture, the professor would ask if there were any questions, she would raise her hand and ask a question. Eventually, as she became more comfortable in asking questions, she then wrote down a couple of points she wanted to make about whatever was being discussed that day, and raised her hand to offer her opinion when her professor asked for comments. By the end of the semester, she was a more active participant although she still cannot just “jump in” to a discussion – at least not yet.
Carlzon, J. (1989). Moments of Truth. New York: HarperBusiness.
Kellaway, L. Do we hug? Kiss? Shake hands? Bow? Financial Times, September 22, 2013.
Molinsky, A. (2013). Global Dexterity. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.