Having a common language in which to share ideas and collaborate is essential in international business (or any business or interaction at all), but linguistics are only the starting place for communication. Cultural exchanges can be as complex as verbal ones, and when cultures come together in business, it’s necessary to find a common language for relating to one another on an interpersonal level, in addition to communicating ideas.
I have spent much of my career working with tools that help people better learn from, understand, and collaborate with one another. The use of many of these tools is expanding throughout the world alongside international business. In the past, they have been used mostly in Western countries, or at least in companies where there are only one or two prominent cultures represented. With the expansion of international business and the influence of these instruments, this regional focus is changing in a big way, and I recently had the opportunity to see the particular cross-cultural value of offering a common language for understanding and describing ourselves.
The Perfect Illustration
Last December, I attended the First Annual Myers-Briggs® Users’ Conference in Dubai. For me, the real benefit of hosting such an event in the UAE was being able to witness how principles of personality type, when understood by an amazingly culturally diverse audience, translated into understanding between individuals with very diverse backgrounds.
The vast majority of the UAE’s population is not Emirati; it’s made up of expatriates from India, China, Europe, North America, and all over the world. I have no doubt that this kind of diversity poses special challenges for development (although challenges like these are not entirely unfamiliar to U.S. businesses either).
We know the problem: When figuring out how to interact with one another, people often take mental shortcuts to develop understanding of a stranger. While someone’s cultural background, age, gender, and so on may indicate something significant about their beliefs and preferences for work style and interaction, when we get to know more about people, we think of them more by the qualities that make them unique: their families, their hobbies, their passions, and their individual personalities. When a team has been working intensively together, individual preferences become much more clear and significant. This happens in homogenous groups, as well as in diverse ones, and in both cases, starting off with a common framework for expressing “who I am” gives members of the group a huge head start in getting to an intensive level of understanding and capacity for collaboration.
Interestingly, some of the moments at the conference that best illustrated this jump to an intensive understanding were the casual ones. One day at lunch I found myself at a table that was a microcosm of the world; I think every continent except Antarctica was represented. We were strangers, and if we were so inclined probably could have made all kinds of assumptions about one another implicitly, and used those assumptions as the basis for our interactions. But instead, because we were at a Myers-Briggs conference and were, for lack of a better term, MBTI wonks, we discussed our type preferences. Rather than discussing landmarks, politics, or sports, discussions centered on items that hit more universally at who we are as human beings—how we take in information, how we make decisions, whether we’re energized or expend energy for social interaction. Immediately, new lines of solidarity and understanding formed around discussing what we, as individuals, prefer in our interactions, and the more outwardly apparent differences took a back seat.
What was remarkable about this lunch was how introducing a common, neutral perspective for understanding one another cut through what might seem to be vast differences and tapped into a deeper, more human, and, I think, more fundamental level of shared experience. My perspective on the group changed, and I could feel that others’ perceptions of me changed when I was able to share my preferences with them in a language they knew.
This power to reframe the process of teambuilding has not been lost on Emirati businesses. Two of the largest Emirati firms, hotel giant Jumeirah and Emirates Airlines, sent representatives to the conference who reported similar experiences in their diverse staffs. I even found out from an attendee from Saudi Arabia that the Saudi civil service, which is known for bringing together every stratum of Saudi society to do the nation’s administrative business, applied these principles in its training efforts.
Even with all the work I’ve done internationally in my career, I couldn’t help but be astounded by these stories and at the idea that a rural Saudi civil servant, an air hostess from India, an Emirati hotel manager, and I could sit down and speak one another’s language about who we are and how we work.
What This Means for the U.S.
In HR in the U.S., we talk a lot about offering a common language for bridging differences in an abstract sense, but it can be easy to forget how effective this can be when we can bond and gain understanding of one another through our shared culture. We can talk about the weather or the game or what we studied in school or what we do with our free time. However, I don’t believe that teams in the U.S. are fundamentally any different from the uber-diverse ones regularly seen in the UAE. The only real difference is the likely magnitude of the diversity, and with the American workforce becoming increasingly diversified, we’re going to see more direct parallels with the UAE.
Don’t Put Me in a Box
People prefer to define themselves on their own terms, and we can best serve each other when we flex to and respect others’ self-conceptions. A lack of the vocabulary for expressing differences, even words for understanding oneself and how one prefers to work and interact, leads to misunderstandings and ultimately can unwind the threads that keep an effective team together. Unlike the tentative assumptions we make about strangers, tools such as the Myers-Briggs assessment don’t prescribe anything. Instead, they offer a vocabulary for individuals to tell their own stories.
Dennis Diligent is the senior VP of Global Sales at CPP, Inc., the exclusive publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and other tools including the FIRO-B and TKI conflict mode instrument. Diligent is a graduate of the University of South Florida and the School for International Training, and is a former Peace Corps Program manager. He has spent a quarter century bringing business, education, and communication tools to every part of the world.