Last week, I talked a bit about the Pre-Doctoral Workshop that I led recently at Strathmore Business School in Nairobi. Today, I would like to consider the cultural differences and what our attitude should be like.
On the last day of the Workshop, participants received a certificate of attendance that I had to sign. As soon as I received the certificates, I noticed they were not in order. Trying to make life easier for the next person, I sorted them out according to last name.
When participants were called on to receive their certificate, my order had been re-arranged: the first person being called was Agnes… that was it! The initial ordering was alphabetical but according to first name! The lady whom I had past the certificates realized I had disordered them, and she hadn’t realized either that I had followed a different convention. Something really minor that was solved in just a few minutes. But cultural differences may have important consequences for cross-national activities: for good and for bad – it depends on our attitude towards them.
The main problem about cultural differences is not that they exist. The problem is that many times we are not aware of these differences, and we evaluate other people’s behaviors based on our own reference frame. This is what happened to both my Kenyan colleague and myself: each one of us was coming from a different frame of reference (a different convention to sort out a bunch of names), and each one thought that the other had done a lousy job. When I tried to make up for hers, I ended up creating trouble (she had to do her job twice).
First step: recognize the differences
We all know that cultural sensitivity is important to succeed in international business. The trick is to recognize those differences. When we enter unknown territory, we may be somewhat vigilant: an Italian company – just to pick one country – will be sensitive to cultural differences when they enter Nigeria in their first African venture.
But once they have some knowledge of the Nigerian culture, they may become overconfident and think that now they will succeed in their next venture only to find out that the culture in Ghana is so different that you need to re-start your “cultural clock” again. This is a mistake that many companies – even those from the continent – make when internationalizing across Africa.
Differences may be an advantage
On the other hand, cultural differences may be a plus. Once I heard Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan Carlos Ghosn say that when there’s a common goal differences become complementarities instead of a source of conflict. This requires a flexible mindset, one which not all of us have but which we can develop by mindfully appreciating the value of differences. Instead of blaming others for having a different perspective or a different way of doing things, let’s start by thinking they may have a good reason for that: I’m sure we’ll learn many things if we take this attitude!
Would you like to share any experience with cultural differences in the African context?