Working Across Cultures

The “Golden (Rule)” or the “Platinum (Rule)” Way?

The main reason for failure in international business is not the lack of technical expertise or good will, but rather cultural illiteracy and the lack of people skills.

Cross-cultural misunderstandings usually are not the result of intentional prejudice or discriminatory actions.  People with the best intentions can cause friction simply by working from the Golden Rule while failing to understand the Platinum Rule.

Let us start with defining – or maybe repeating – both rules:

Many of us know the “Golden Rule“, which says: Treat others as we would have them treat us. In other words: Treat other people – in business as well as in private – the way you yourself would want to be treated!

So far so good.

And we all know, everyone is different, and the truth is that in many cases what you’d want done to you is different from what your partner, employee, customer, investor, wife, or child would want done to him or her.

Keeping this in mind, Dave Kerpen, the author of the book “The Art of People” came up with the “Platinum Rule”. And this on the other side says: Treat others as they would like you to treat them!  He is convinced that when you follow the Platinum Rule, “you can be sure you’re actually doing what the other person wants done and assure yourself of a better outcome.“ To illustrate this rule, Dale Carnegie told in his book “How to win friends and influence people” the following story:

“Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: „Wouldn’t you like to have that?“

And what does this mean for our working across cultures? How do you encounter other people? Do you know how “they” want to be treated? Very often we don’t really know how they want to be treated What we consider as “common sense” in our culture may not be common sense in another culture. Another – maybe better – approach in a cross-cultural environment is a similar context of intuition or listening to your gut feeling.

How can you navigate successful in another culture? One big obstacle on our way towards a successful integration is judgment! Judgement of others, judgment of their actions, judgment of their behaviors, Let us stop judgment and instead seek out for the alternative reasons behind why people do the things they do.  If we can suspend negative evaluations and use frustrations instead to dig deeper into the intent behind the other person’s actions and reactions, we may be better able to get to the bottom of things.

And then, when we look behind these behaviors, we can adapt our behavior to achieve mutual goals. Give it a try! I’m convinced it’ll work

An example (typical for our modern, global work environment) will demonstrate you these learnings a bit better: Peter from the US, and Bao from Thailand are working together on a cross-cultural project. In meetings Peter is used to talk honestly about his thoughts, comes straight to the point and uses meetings for brainstorming and discussing next steps.

Bao on the other side is used to a more hierarchical approach and not to speak up in front of others (especially not that open).

As a result both did move further away instead of working closer together  as Peter was thinking the other was dishonest and calculating where Bao shut down more and more.

What could be a possible solution?

If Peter would have learned upfront about Bao’s culture and what is appropriate and what not (e.g. not speaking up in meetings when the boss is there, seeking a group consensus before putting forth your individual opinion, ) Peter would have been better able to interpret the meaning behind Bao’s behavior. And the same goes for Bao: If he would have been informed upfront about the American way of handling meetings he might have better equipped himself in order to come to consensus on their shared goals.

What can you learn from this? Start with acquiring knowledge of foreign cultural systems and acquire intercultural competencies! When we take the time to learn about someone else’s preference we are better able to walk the talk of being global and adapt our behaviors while still hanging on tightly to our home core values. It is basic human nature to assume that people want things the way we do, but in a globalizing world that idea may just not be as golden as we once thought.

And now, dear reader, I am wishing you lots of fun and success in your cross-cultural communication and I am looking forward to hearing back from you about your experiences and learnings.