Cultural Humility

If you behave with Cultural Humility, this probably means that upon entering a diverse or acutely diverse organizational situation, you have the following knowledge and skills:

1) Awareness about your own cultures’ assumptions and limitations.

2) Awareness about the way that your culture may be perceived by other people with whom you are interacting.

3) A mindset that says ” My way of looking at things and/or doing things may not be appropriate.”

4) A willingness to see reality though other peoples’ lenses to as not to impose your own way of interacting.

5) A willingness to try out different ways of interacting.

Two examples of people without and with Cultural Humility

Product Manager John came to Thailand for 3 days to promote the product for which he was responsible. John came in at 0900 am and convened a meeting to get “right down to business”. He talked quickly for 45 minutes heaping lavish praise on his product, and asked “if there were any questions”. No one answered him, so he said, “I am going to go one by one and I would ask for your honest assessment how we can “make this fly here in Thailand.” .

He pointed to the youngest lady at the left and said-you go first.”

John has no cultural humility.

Fred, another Product Manager, came to Thailand two weeks later. Fred is aware that the Thai market is cost sensitive. Fred came to gather input on what features can be compromised to drive costs down. Fred knows that bragging about his product makes the Thais feel extremely uncomfortable. Fred also knows that he needs lots of face to face time with people to find out what they suggest. Fred knows that asking people to speak out in meetings is not the way to gather input, especially if they do not trust you. Fred knows that it is not acceptable for a local office to tell HQ folks what to do.

Fred came for two weeks. The first few days he had easy going, face to face meetings and got to know the people. He made them feel comfortable.  He told them “I am in no hurry”. That built trust. Fred joined the folks at lunch supper and even on weekends. Fred built trust.

Fred got high quality input from the sophisticated local team. Fred showed cultural humility all the way.

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13 thoughts on “Cultural Humility

  1. Totally agree with the principles that you have articulated, but yes and maybe to the conclusions. The problem lies when we do not have sufficient emotional intelligence to ask before we leap.
    Self awareness is underrated in the Western culture as there is a presupposition that the Western forms of behaviour is far superior to other cultural norms. it goes back to right and wrong, truth or save facing, is one more valuable than the other? Is there a need for more understanding on all fronts that if the young man asked the youngest woman in the room, it is not to be derogatory but that the minority voice is sometimes good to hear first. I believe we need to be less sensitive and accept that most humans are starting from a place of goodwill.

  2. Like your blog and the topic. Indeed like it since I am working with cultural issues and awareness myself. When it comes to expecting people to speak up in meetings I am not so sure though since if someone is invited to a let\s say a management meeting, well then they are expecting to speak up and to CONTRIBUTE to the meeting. If the person says nothing – well then he/she shouldn’t be in the meeting!
    I am coaching Chinese people in something that I call “taking place and space in a meeting” in purpose of helping them to live up to the expectations that foreign companies have on them if they are invited to a management meeting for instance. This is also a topic when I am running trainings in “Presentation Technique” for Chinese people. IT IS about cultural awareness but also about expectations and my aim is to help people from different cultures and totally different “accepted behaviors” point of view to understand each other better and to help all to become better and more competitive on the market and the “market place”.

    • Hello Eva,
      Many thanks for your insights. I also coach Chinese executives in many disciplines working for global firms in Beijing. It would be splendid if we could meet to exchange notes and ideas.

    • Hi Eva,
      I am teaching Chinese students before going to study abroad, also on the topic of “taking place and space in seminars”. I love the way you name it! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Eva
    My experience is that in China, most large meetings are public affirmations of hierarchical status and if one wants a contribution beyond that, it is best done out of a meeting.
    Chinese need to be trained to behave differently in meetings run by foreign nationals. I have had success doing so, but it is an uphill battle. Much easier done in HK and Shanghai.

    • You are correct that “official” meetings are like that, I am talking about meetings within a company so I took the example “management meeting”. In official meetings there is a set up – you are put in hierarchical order – and many people attending are there only to “measure up” to the number of attendees of the other part. Not so much talking in there at all! 🙂

  4. Allon,

    Many thanks for your commentary. Having lived and worked across Asia for the past 22 years, Cultural Humility (an excellent description) is sorely needed by those of us who seem to possess a certain assertiveness and expect those in the audience to accept what we say and do what we instruct them to do. Cultural sensitivity is central to success, even in one’s own country.

  5. Cross border Business is about culture. I have worked for more than 20 years now in multicultural environment and still wonder about the same mistakes: exporting companies lack of intercultural training and coaching. HQ think they have the convential wisdom und just want to repeat local success stories abroad. And this is not an American issue only!

  6. Pingback: Corporate culture cannot bridge acute cultural differences (revised) | Allon Shevat

  7. Pingback: “Meeting somewhere in the middle”: just another cultural bias-revised | Allon Shevat

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