“Americans often say, ‘We should treat everyone as individuals.’ It sounds reasonable enough, but in fact it’s a culturally biased approach in that it places special value on individualism. Not all cultures do.” Milton Bennett
It’s great to be able to speak Spanish or French, but in a global world, business leaders must learn a new language: intercultural competency.
Pierre Hurstel, Global Leader, Diversity & Inclusiveness, EY, France, discussed how leaders can develop this competency with Milton Bennett, Ph.D., a leading authority in the field who designs training programs to develop intercultural skills for global corporations in the US, Asia and Europe. Bennett is on the executive training faculty of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (US) and the Stockholm School of Economics, and serves as Director of the Intercultural Development Research Institute.
Pierre Hurstel: What does intercultural competency involve?
Milton Bennett: In this context, culture means the worldview you acquire when you belong to a certain group. This is distinct from your individual personality, because others in the group share elements of this worldview. Intercultural refers to the interface between individuals from different cultures. Communication is the process of creating shared meaning for people, despite their different ways of seeing the world.
Pierre Hurstel: Some executives remain skeptical about the value of diversity in a business context. What’s your response?
Milton Bennett: People from different cultures often have trouble communicating in the workplace. This miscommunication has a cost that’s borne by the enterprise; improved intercultural communication can reduce it. Diversity can also lead to new perspectives, and possibly to innovative products and services, and companies definitely want that. Sophisticated companies — those who aren’t just checking a box, or being politically correct — want to improve the performance of their multicultural teams.
Pierre Hurstel: This would seem to be particularly relevant to companies involved in cross-border acquisitions.
Milton Bennett: Yes. When mergers fail to produce their intended benefits, it’s generally because of cultural reasons: the acquiring organization seeks to subsume the perspective of the target, and as a result they lose it.
Pierre Hurstel: Leadership is about action, and your work offers a model of what leaders must do to get the benefits of diversity. What are the steps?
Milton Bennett: To gain the value of diversity, you need a program of training and coaching aimed at acquiring the benefits of diversity, rather than avoiding its difficulties. There are three main aspects to this programming:
- Dealing with the issues of cultural identity. Diversity initiatives must help people understand how certain culturally determined worldviews may play out at work. Basically, this allows them to generalize about people who are different from them, without lapsing into stereotypes.
- Interaction analysis. This has to do with predicting misunderstandings that might arise in cross-cultural situations. For example, an American at a meeting might want to start discussing business immediately, while a European would find this too abrupt. This analysis also can help you spot areas where the different sides have complementary skills or talents.
- Developing competence at intercultural communication. There’s a model of intercultural sensitivity that maps a sequence of stages people move through — from more ethnocentric positions to more “ethno-relative” ones. On the way, people become more sophisticated in their ability to experience cultural difference.
Pierre Hurstel: Some of those ideas seem focused on helping people see their own blind spots.
Milton Bennett: The programming must help people understand some of their own unconscious biases. These can be subtle and well-intentioned. For example, Americans often say, “We should treat everyone as individuals.” It sounds reasonable enough — especially to an American. But in fact it’s a culturally biased approach in that it places special value on individualism. Not all cultures do.
Pierre Hurstel: Are there any unintended consequences or possible negative side effects of diversity initiatives?
Milton Bennett: Yes, they can actually exacerbate a business situation rather than improve it: by leading to stereotyping, for example. The implied promise of an affirmative action program or a recruitment initiative is that I’m being hired because I have a unique perspective, not because my prospective employer has to check off a box on some form. Handled badly, or without adequate support from top leadership, diversity programs can create disaffected workers who don’t consider the company to be “the employer of choice” — and who may not stick around for long.
Pierre Hurstel: Your work talks about forming a third culture. What does this refer to?
Milton Bennett: It’s a kind of virtual space that opens up in any intercultural communication between two or more people, where one is trying to adapt to the other. Members of the non-dominant group usually adapt to the dominant one. But when the dominant group tries to adapt, you get a third culture — one that isn’t a hybrid but a distinct culture in its own right. Groups that develop a third culture are more likely to generate a “third solution” — not the one either would have reached on its own. That’s where you find the true value to the organization, whether it takes the form of innovation, enhanced problem-solving or some other improved outcome. The organization gets this value not just from being in contact with others who are different, but from undergoing a process that makes its people more interculturally competent.