Cross-Cultural Skills: Make or Buy?

There are a number of entertaining, and potentially valuable, stories regarding cross-cultural blunders that have been made over the years, particularly in the business world. One of the most interesting I heard recently concerned an advertisement for a washing machine that was being marketed in the Middle East. The advertisement consisted of three frames: the first frame showed a pile of dirty laundry, the second showed the washing machine, and the third showed a pile of clean clothing. After the advertisement was shown in the Middle East, however, it was observed that sales did not pick up; indeed, sales were extremely low. Then the company realized that in the Middle East, people read from right to left, not left to right. What people were observing in the advertisement was clean clothing becoming dirty after going through the washing machine! In a previous column, I discussed sources of candidates with cross-cultural skills and experience. In this article, I discuss how to ensure that your organization has employees with the requisite cross-cultural skills. It’s helpful to note that cross-cultural skills are not just needed for someone who is going to be an expatriate. Indeed, most organizations in the U.S. have employees from many different cultures. In order to be to be an effective supervisor, it may be necessary to have high levels of cross-cultural skills. Make Versus Buy There are two ways to assure that candidates have the appropriate cross-cultural skills and experience. The quickest way is to assess applicants, using the appropriate tools, to determine if they have these skills and experiences. I will refer to this approach as the “assessment” approach. An alternative means, however, is to provide the appropriate training and development activities to assure that candidates obtain the requisite cross-cultural skills and experience. In that case, you will select candidates based on their ability and motivation to learn about cross-cultural skills. I will refer to this as the “training and development” (T&D) approach. Of course, it may be quite possible to blend the assessment and T&D approaches by selecting candidates who have demonstrated a modest level of skill in this area, while at the same time, creating a T&D framework for further developing their cross-cultural skill level. The Assessment Approach to Cross-Cultural Skills For nearly 100 years, HR experts have conducted extensive research on a variety of assessment tools, ranging from structured interview techniques to psychological testing. The vast majority of this research, however, has been conducted in domestic (i.e., North American) settings. Based on this research, behaviorally-based interviews are likely to be among the most effective ways to select people. For a variety of reasons, I strongly recommend that you use structured interviews, where all applicants are asked a common core set of questions. There are two popular approaches to behaviorally-based interviews. One approach, often referred to as the behavioral description interview, or BDI, focuses on work-related situations that the candidates have been involved in, and how they have conducted themselves in those situations. The underlying premise of the BDI interview is that “past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.” These kinds of interviews are likely to be effective in predicting cross-cultural skills. Depending on the nature of the position, here are some examples of BDI questions that may be useful in assessing cross-cultural skills:

  • “Tell me about a time when you led a team with members from diverse cultures. What was the most difficult problem you faced? How did you address the problem? What was the outcome?”
  • “Tell me about a time when you mentored someone from a different culture. What problems did you face in that role? How did you address those issues?”
  • Tell me about a time when you were responsible for setting up a new office or manufacturing facility in another country. Describe the country and situation. What was the greatest difficulty you experienced? How did you address it?”

The second approach to behaviorally-based interviews involves situational, or hypothetical, questions. Usually referred to as the situational interview (SI), this approach is based on the premise that “intentions are the best predictor of the future.” Like the BDI interview, SI questions should be helpful in assessing candidates’ cross-cultural skills. Depending on the nature of the position, here are some examples of SI questions that may be of help in selecting applicants with the appropriate cross-cultural skills:

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  • “Imagine you had to lead a team of employees from different parts of Europe, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The goal of the team is to take products that have been developed in North America and prepare a marketing campaign for the European Union. How would you go about leading this team?”
  • “Assume you have a new employee from Japan. She seems to be having great difficulty adjusting to her new job, as she has made many mistakes and is avoiding talking with you. What would you do?”
  • “You are asked to set up a new office to market our products in Latin America. What challenges would you expect to face and how would you overcome them?”

Of course, there are other tools that are available to assess cross-cultural skills, including personality tests, knowledge inventories, and measures of motivation for cross-cultural work. The T&D Approach to Cross-Cultural Skills There are two different T&D approaches for teaching cross-cultural skills. One approach, which emphasizes the more traditional “training” approach, utilizes a variety of “off the job” techniques. The focus of this approach tends to be informational, such as the political structure of the country and proper business etiquette. Various web-based tools have been designed towards this end, as well as games and simulations that require relatively large amounts of time and numbers of people. There are also some helpful videos that will introduce trainees to major issues and solutions regarding common cross-cultural problems. Well-designed lectures, combined with case discussions and various exercises, can also facilitate learning. An alternative model focuses on the “development” approach to T&D. The development approach focuses on providing a series of “on the job” experiences that can enable an employee to acquire good cross-cultural skills. The development approach to cross-cultural skills involves developing a set of experiences that an organization can offer to employees, ranging from relatively safe experiences (e.g., preparing a presentation on another country; attending a social function with people from other countries) to significantly more challenging experiences (e.g., leading a cross-cultural task force). Ultimately, an overseas assignment, even of relatively short duration, will serve as a valuable learning experience. Of course, one may use both the training and developmental approaches to create a program that takes advantage of both techniques. Employees could begin with a sequence of training activities, based on such methods as the Internet, videos, and readings, followed by a series of developmental experiences. Many organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of cross-cultural skills, especially given the many subtle differences between countries. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a global assurance, tax, and advisory services company, developed a program for top managers that sends them overseas on eight-week project assignments to assist poor countries with critical projects. Not only does this program help those countries, but it facilitates the development of critical cross-cultural skills that are useful to the company. As the world becomes increasingly global, companies will need to determine how to build their cross-cultural capabilities. To summarize, here are some suggestions for companies:

  1. Determine the current and future importance of cross-cultural skills for your business.
  2. Include an assessment of cross-cultural skills in your new hires, as appropriate.
  3. Determine whether to “make” or “buy” cross-cultural capabilities.
  4. Design effective T&D experiences and activities to ensure your cross-cultural capabilities match the requirements for your business.

Michael Harris, Ph.D. (mharris@easiconsult.com) is the vice president of litigation support services at EASI*Consult, LLC, a management consulting firm that provides expert assessment solutions and litigation support. Dr. Harris has served as an expert witness and consultant in a variety of employment discrimination cases, including race, age, and disabilities lawsuits. Dr. Harris has published extensively in the human resources management area, including two books: The Employment Interview Handbook and HRM: A Practical Approach. He has delivered training on interviewing, diversity, "train-the-trainer," and related topics. He is currently one of two chief contributors to George's Employment Blawg, a blog devoted to HR and HR law issues. Dr. Harris holds a professorship in the College of Business Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can also be contacted at 1.800.922.EASI, 314-803-6618 (mobile).

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1 Comment on “Cross-Cultural Skills: Make or Buy?

  1. I wonder how valid the assessment of a candidate for a multi-cultural or cross-cultural assignment would be if the person conducting the interview (a) had no multi-cultural/cross-cultural experience and hence (b) did not ask the ‘right’ questions?

    Sure it’s nice to watch shows on HGTV about building a house but no matter how many times you watch it, the likelihood that you will be able to build it are, oh might I say, dubious at best…

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