The key consideration in working cooperatively across cultures can be summarized in one word – trust. We tend to be suspicious of, and mistrust, people that are not like us. Whether that difference is in skin color, religion, habits, or heritage, many have an innate distrust of that which is different and which they may not fully understand. President Barrack Obama famously, or infamously depending on your perspective, referred to his white grandmother as having “a fear of black men who passed her on the street” (Obama, 2008). This illustrates the innate mistrust which often exists, even in people who we think would not have trust issues with other cultures.
In a world where you can live your whole life, personally and professionally, and only come in contact with people that are like you, that mistrust, while regrettable, would not be a great impediment to success. However, in a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and requires interaction with people that may be vastly different than you, that lack of trust is not only regrettable, it is a great impediment to your personal and professional growth and success.
The key to overcoming this innate mistrust is to look beyond the surface differences and find a common ethical standard upon which trust can then be built. Evanoff (Evanoff, 2004) describes three possible approaches to finding ethical compatibility. The universalist approach assumes that ethical standards are universal in nature and what is considered ethical in one culture will be considered equally ethical in all cultures. The relativist approach assumes that each culture has its own ethical standard and there really can be no common standard of ethics across cultures. Evanoff rejects both of those paradigms in favor of “co-created norms” (Evanoff, 2004). He proposes that by “constructing an agreed-upon, shared norm, we can build bridges across differences through not only learning from other cultures, but also from the adoption of shared values and behaviors to improve positive interaction” (Evanoff, 2004). Acting in accord with these clearly defined shared values allows divergent cultures to build that all important element – trust.
When a relationship of trust has been developed, the surface differences become much less of an impediment to cooperation, and in fact become an asset to be utilized in achieving the shared goals of the cultures operating in concert in a company or organization. The goal of today’s leaders must be to work with their counterparts in other cultures to develop these shared norms and common values and then to propagate them through their respective organizations. The more I trust someone from another culture, the more ready I will be to accept and embrace their diversity and work together with them to achieve our common goals.
Barack Obama Throws White Grandmother Under the Campaign Bus. (20008, March 21). Retrieved April 27, 2015 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEd0Wg_QMrg.
Evanoff, R. “Universalist, Relativist, and Constructivist Approaches to Intercultural Ethics,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 28, 2004, pp. 439-458. As cited by Moran, Robert T., Harris, Philip R., Moran, Sarah V. Managing Cultural Differences: Leadership Skills and Strategies for Working in a Global World. Burlington, MA: Elsevier, Inc. 2011 – Eighth Edition.