Sue Anderson had been sent by her multinational company to Spain from her home office in New Orleans in order to work on a year-long project. Sue received information about Spanish culture in a pre-departure orientation and Spanish language classes while in Spain. Although it was difficult, she adjusted and within a short time was performing at a high level of efficiency. She returned to her home office. Two years later, she was sent to Ireland for a year-long project. Again she received information about Irish culture in a pre-departure orientation. However, she was never completely comfortable with this assignment and performed at a lower than expected level. Upon her return, her supervisor and HR director were at a loss to explain the difference – as was Sue. They had no criteria to evaluate why she had been able to adjust and work at different levels in the two different countries.

The Culture Bump Approach to dealing with differences offers a specific criteria for evaluating ex-pat employees because it offers a clear process to be learned and practiced. The Culture Bump Process is outlined in an eight-step protocol which then is broken into five clear skill sets. A manager can analyze his or her own behavior or their employees’ behavior by using the protocols and skill sets. This allows a clear understanding of why something worked or why it did not work – or why it worked only partially.

The skills are simply:

(1) Pinpoint and describe the culture bump – e.g. the specific behavior
(2) Manage your emotions to the bump
(3) Find the “Universal situation” inherent in the incident e.g. greetings in public,
asking for a favor etc.
(4) Describe what your behavior would be in that situation and what it would
“mean” to you to do “that”
(5) Have a conversation about “meanings”

Case Study

We can use this to analyze the cross cultural interaction of an expatriate from the Netherlands working in South Texas. Mr. Willem deVries, originally from the Netherlands, is a Process Automation Engineer with a multinational chemical corporation.  He was tasked with building, testing, commissioning and starting up plant control systems for a new plant in South Texas. As such he had multiple responsibilities – including training host national operators on a completely new system. The operators had worked with the old system for many years.  Some could be expected to have varying levels of resistance to the new protocols –  ranging from irritation to anger – while others might be eager to learn.

Mr. de Vries prepared a presentation in which he had the operators tell him how much they knew about the old system. (This is an overt example of skill four –and also has the benefit of the operators becoming conscious of their own behaviors.) He then expanded on how the old system was the foundation for the new one – this allowed the operators to apply their experience in the new system.  By bringing the two systems together, Mr. deVries provided a “universal” foundation for the operators and himself to begin the changes.  This universality provided a context for the operators to practice the second skill – that of managing their emotions to the change.   All of this led Mr. de Vries and the operators to begin a conversation about how effective they have been and will continue to be.

He also dealt with his own culture bump with the operators when, upon beginning his presentation, many of them were slouched in their seats. He paid attention to the behavior (skill one pinpoint and describing the difference) and quickly decided that his own behavior would be to sit up which would connote interest and respect; he managed his own emotions by clarifying for himself with specific questions designed to ascertain whether  the attendees would participate. When they responded to his questions, he was able to move on without any delay into the presentation. While Mr. de Vries may not have been completely cognizant of the skills he utilized to deal with this particular situation at that time, by understanding the process and the skills and contextualizing his actions within that process, he is now able to make more conscious choices, more consistently. The Culture Bump Approach brought to consciousness his own innate abilities.  And because he is conscious of those abilities, he can also pass them on to those that he manages who perhaps do not have them innately.  In short, his innate skills have become conscious cross-cultural competencies which can be applied in other arenas as well as taught to others.

This consciousness is critical for those who live and work in the global marketplace and who must constantly face multiple national cultures, professional cultures and corporate cultures at various levels. The Culture Bump Approach to dealing with differences provides a very useful tool for decision making in these situations with its clear process to success.

And Sue Anderson – we will never know.

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