Let’s Grow Professional: Culture Shock

letsgrow professional

Last week (on LinkedIn and WordPress), I wrote about how travel overseas requires planning and mindful action, and how we can learn from that experience about how to approach professional growth. I took some time to talk about the first few steps:

  1. Deciding to go.
  2. Deciding where to go
  3. Deciding when to go
  4. Assembling resources (passport, money, equipment, clothing, tickets)
  5. Boarding the plane and staying on it for the duration of its flight

This week I’m taking a deeper dive in the sixth step:

6. Establishing communication

Communication has many aspects to it. We frequently think of talking, reading and writing, but communication is happening with everything we do. This week’s post looks closely at culture: The way we do things. In fact, when you land in a new country, your language skills are likely to take a back seat to your nonverbal communication.

After two years of college German studies, I traveled to Germany for a nine-week stay. Unfortunately, as soon as I landed I realized that my American-college German class experience was not going to be enough for me to carry on conversations. All the vocabulary flashcards I’d brought with me were useless.

Instead, I pointed at signs, mimed a little, and said things like, “English?”  Germans in Frankfurt quickly figured out what I meant was, “I’m an American with poor German skills. I need help, but this language is hard for me!”

We have a similar experience when we are first landing in a professional leadership or management role. We might believe ourselves to be prepared because of an expensive training class or business degree, but when we face the real-life expectations of our new bosses and direct reports, we realize that all the flashcards in the world will never help. It’s sink or swim.

Whether you are in a new country or a new company, the process of establishing communication unfolds in some similar ways:

  • pay attention to cultural cues
  • listen and question
  • mimic with some caution
  • there will be missteps and failures
  • forgive yourself, look at what you’ve learned, and give yourself credit

pay attention to cultural cues

Just as every nation has its own culture–its own way of doing things, including language, arts, governance, food, work, and play–so does every company. When you are new to an organization you can blast in like you know everything and expect everyone to conform to your expectations and plans (a stereotype that is known in tourism as “the ugly American”), but those who love the organizational culture they’ve had and prize their way of doing things will be quickly alienated and sabotage your efforts.

A more effective approach when you are new to an organization is to enter with the intention of learning all you can as quickly as you can. Despite anyone’s training and education, we all have a lot to learn when we are new to a culture. Pay attention to the way people do things when they are not being told what to do. Notice their habits and assumptions. Pick up on the typical motivators that are used and how they are working. Are people happy or not? When are they happier? There is much to pay attention to.

question and listen

When you’ve landed in a country where the language is different, one of the best tools you can have is the phrase “How do you say _________ here?” If you are speaking to someone who speaks your own language you can fill in the blank with the English word, or you can point to an object or mime an action to fill in the blank. Asking this question and trying it on for yourself when you get the answer helps you learn the language.

Similarly, in a new organization it is very important to ask questions about what people expect, what they are used to, and how they typically get things done. When you do so, also ask why they do things that way. You will find that for some habits, the reason why is unknown or simply that it’s how they were trained. don’t be satisfied with this kind of answer.

Look for those who will know and keep asking the question until you get real explanations. Ask not only how the action originated but also what results it gets. You might find that the habitual action is critically important, or you might find that it’s wasted energy.

mimic with some caution

We know that middle schoolers can have lots of fun with a gullible international student, and likewise not all of the cultural habits available for to you to mimic are a good idea. The role of asking questions and listening closely to the answers is to help you determine which cultural habits and language are worth taking to heart and adopting for your own and which ones need to change. Your role as a leader is to be a change agent. Just do your research first.

there will be missteps and failures

Don’t let fear paralyze you, either. Just as international travel can mean making big, sometimes humorous mistakes, so also you will make mistakes in your new company culture. You might strike out at the wrong time or hold back at the wrong time. Maybe you tell a joke that hits a sore spot. Whatever happens, acknowledge that it was bound to happen sooner or later. Try to find the humor and turn it into a great story for the next new person to learn from.

forgive yourself, look at what you’ve learned, and give yourself credit

The last step in this process is one that you will need to repeat for the rest of your career, although likely with less and less frequency as you go along.

Because missteps and failures are inevitable, you cannot let them stop you. In international travel it’s very common for people to experience culture shock because everything is so different and the experience of failure can be overwhelming. At work you may feel like the demands on you, the time pressure, and everything you have to learn are just too much–especially if your efforts are not being recognized and your mistakes are the only feedback you receive.

Take time on a regular basis to remind yourself of who you are and how much you have grown and learned through this experience. Give yourself credit for each experience in which you capitalized on a previous mistake in order to do a better job.

A new company or a new leadership role can feel like you’ve entered a foreign country. But if you pay close attention, pick up on everything you can, ask questions as you go, and explore the status quo with curiosity, you will be able to take wise action down the line. Give yourself a little time to find your feet, and then when the time has come to make a big impact, you’ll be able to make the one you intended to make.


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