‘No man is an island’, the old saying goes, no one can stand alone in an increasingly interconnected world. Businesses opting to operate in different locations means that communication has to be perfected to a fine art, in order to ensure a national success doesn’t become an international failure.
A recent report in the Harvard Business Review suggests that as much as 80 percent of job success comes from “soft” skills, rather than technical expertise. It is easy to understand why: we spend a large part of our working lives interacting with other people. No man is an island – that is certainly true of any modern-day organisation where employees work and collaborate in cross-functional and geographically separated teams.
The Changing Remit of International Assignees
Historically, an assignee arrived in their new host country, carried out a specific task and returned home (or went elsewhere). The past decade has seen a dramatic change in how assignees work and interact with local employees and offices. Assignments are now much more about skills transfer, professional development and building capacity – three areas that need relationship building skills. Despite having a task to do, the scope of assignments has become much wider. When managers now go on an international assignment, it has become normal for them to be involved in “people work” more often than technical work.
The challenge is that we assume, just as technical skills are a given, soft skills, or more accurately business communication skills, are universal. We know from cultural theory and research that this is not the case – far from it.
Translating Soft Skills
This calls into question our approach to selecting and assessing potential talent for international roles. Research consistently shows that one of the most common causes of assignment failure is the inability to adapt to some aspect of the cultural differences of the new host country. In other words, the communication skills learned in a home environment are not suited to the new cultural environment. Nevertheless, we continue to select assignees primarily based on their technical skills and their ability to work effectively in their home country/culture. This is a flawed approach.
We know, for example that the way we interpret emotional responses, and how we demonstrate emotion are a product of our cultural background. Behavioural psychologists tell us that we only learn this interpreting skill in our teenage years. If we do not have the cultural awareness to understand emotions across cultures, we can only conduct our international business on a pre-pubescent emotional level. Is it any wonder we frequently hit a cultural wall?
Measuring Intercultural Competence
What we need therefore is a way of examining the intercultural skills of an assignee before they leave and identifying how to bridge any competency gap. This will help them apply their technical expertise effectively in the new culture. One of the difficulties is that there is no green light/red light test that you can apply universally to say send or don’t send. By definition, a new culture is a new experience, and we do not yet have a methodology to predict the unknown.
However, we can measure intercultural competency levels as a baseline, and use that to examine what intercultural and communication skills an assignee may need to develop before going on assignment. Here at Communicaid, we deploy The International Profiler (TIP) for exactly this purpose. TIP is an intercultural psychometric assessment tool with an emphasis on personal skills development. Based on rigorous research it is an effective way to help international workers become more effective.
TIP allows assignees (or other international workers) to look at their future role in the light of their current intercultural competency in 22 skill areas. Based on the results of a detailed online assessment, a Communicaid certified coach can then work with the assignee to review communication (and other) areas that may prove challenging for them in their new host country.
The results of the psychometric tool feed into many of Communicaid’s programmes and form an invaluable part of the learning and coaching sessions for any assignee going on a new international assignment.
A product specialist of a large industrial company was due to move to China after taking on the leadership of an important project. The purpose of the assignment was to evaluate the current packaging process, suggest improvements to reduce overheads and increase efficiency. Her initial attempts to investigate the processes while based in her home country had been met with resistance by her Chinese colleagues. The decision was taken that being based in China for a period might help her build relationships and understand the people and processes better.
As the first part of her international assignee training package with Communicaid, the assignee carried out the online psychometric assessment. The results proved interesting as they highlighted a low score in the attribute called Flexible Judgement. The low score for this attribute impacted her ability to understand why things are done in a certain way. Her Communicaid Consultant also noted that her low score in Range of Styles could mean that her communication style was overly direct for her Chinese colleagues, and may lead to a breakdown in relationships.
During the session, Communicaid was able to introduce the assignee to the “DIVE” model of intercultural analysis (Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate) to help her understand other people’s perspectives. She was also able to practise how to take a more indirect, high context approach to her communication, which can build trust, rapport and common ground with her Chinese counterparts.
Her employer was able to avoid the potential embarrassment of a curtailed assignment and the alienation of both the assignee and the local team. The cost saving processes have been identified, relationships built and the assignee has gained invaluable intercultural skills and international experience
Overlook at your Own Risk
Intercultural and communication skills are often dismissed as expensive luxuries – this judgement ignores the overwhelming weight of data and research that shows that they are the key to unlocking the potential of an international assignment. Taking the time to analyse the intercultural competency of your international assignees can maximise the return on the assignment, reduce the risk of failure and help your organisation develop truly global talent.
Matthew heads up Communicaid’s Intercultural training division where he is responsible for the design and global management of programmes in more than 60 different countries each year. A seasoned interculturalist, Matthew has more than twenty years’ experience of helping clients to maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks of working internationally. For more information about Communicaid, please visit www.communicaid.com