How to develop cultural agility in global business?

It is over two decades, in rainy midnight, Cathay Pacific carried a young man from the vibrant city Mumbai to Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. The dream of a better life, excitement of the new place, fear of adjusting to a new culture kept him awake throughout the flight.

As he checked in the hotel the front desk received him well with characteristic greetings of Thailand, Sawadee Khap. It was much similar to the Indian way of saying Namaste. Much softer though mixed with a musical tonality and warmth. He noticed people speak in an utterly soft voice with a deep sense of care for other people. Thus the journey began to understand how people greet, how they talk, how they conduct themselves with their superiors, peers, how they dislike loud voice with assertiveness. The chairman of the company eats with subordinates in a round table together. The young man understood in a few weeks that he may be having good behaviour, but if he doesn’t adapt to the way people do transactions here, the meaning can be way different. He started taking a lesson in Thai speaking as a majority of the people are quite shy to converse in English. It’s not that, many of them did not know how to speak English, it’s just that they were not comfortable. To the relief , the young man adopted a new culture in a hard way and performed pretty well. The story is more or less similar to many global executives.
There are many dimensions of cultural agility. In the scope of limited discussion, just a few salient parts are highlighted here.
Global companies setting up shops in different continents. They are becoming much more careful in the selection of people with the right cultural fit over rational competence. Many companies are abandoning projects in other countries, as they do not have enough people on board with cultural agility in true sense. It is becoming a real crisis.
Top-notch company in India acquired the best assets in Germany and tumbled in just a few years. The same company was acquired by another Indian company and they became utterly successful. Companies of Korea failed in Thailand. American startups in India did shut their shops in a few years. The business dynamism, the country regulation, tax regime etc definitely matter. But in these cases, the biggest impact was from cultural agility. Also, there are many instances where executives working in another country wrap up in a few years for the next country again mainly due to the fact that they could not survive the overall culture. Many executives working abroad find it difficult to adjust in their own country when they come back after a long spell. Their cultural software gets changed and needs to show enough cultural agility once again.
The culture of different nations within Asia is different. The countries like Japan, Singapore, India, Middle East, China, Korea are so distinct.
The culture of North America, South America, Australia, Europe, Africas are so different.
The global nomads are usually quite watchful and always learning. The whole idea of this article is to convey certain core principles which we already know and more from the standpoint to have a fresh look into the subject. You can do further detailing or add many more other aspects. These are not typically do’s or don’ts. It is more like software development within you. Once it is programmed properly, it runs on autopilot. If someone is succeeding in making a deep connection in the market place or succeeds to strike a joint venture deal etc, always know beyond arithmetic there is something else. Cultural agility helps tremendously to create a long-lasting trust and bond in the longer run.

Genuine Curiosity

about people while talking to them. People catch a superficial approach easily. 

Basic Greetings

(All may not like handshakes..for example)

LISTEN (Level II, Level III).

Try to understand the meaning behind the words, the untold story.

Obervation without judgement

e.g, do not bring the deep culture of your own to influence the new one what you are interacting now. If you are a vegetarian, do not overemphasize the benefit of veg diet to the people who like meat or the vice versa. Being veg or non-veg does not make you a better or worse person.

General leadership styles.

Is it more hierarchical or egalitarian type? Make sure you communicate accordingly. If you are from Asia and used to the hierarchical type of management, make sure when you travel to the Americas , you are asking straight questions and getting involved in the discussion. Or else you may be perceived as not competent enough. Of course, you should not become too much talkative. The other way round if you are from the Americas and making a presentation in an Asian context , do not ask a direct question to a particular person. They may feel threatened.

Humility & Empathy.

When language or accent becomes a barrier, humility and empathy work as a great friend of yours. It’s universal. Assertiveness is fine but not the aggression. Humility and empathy are becoming the strength of the executives more and more.


to other person’s model of the world. You may be holding an important position in your company, be genuinely interested in people with respect.

Rational or emotional

Some culture appreciates rational straight data or facts, some cultures value relationship in the first place. Or some cultures may be a mixture of them.

Frankness and always be ready to learn.

There are so much to learn actually from any culture in the long run and truly helps one to evolve.

Take it easy.

We get to be right or wrong.

Wishing a happy global transition.

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