Preferences, Biases and Global BusinessOne of the things I noticed most during my recent visit to Dublin, Ireland was how many new nationalities that could be seen on the streets. Since I’ve been to Ireland over the course of many years, it’s interesting to watch it change over time. There seem to be different groups each time I visit and it’s something to hear the multitude of languages.

In Boston, I experience this on a daily basis. It’s one of the things that makes me love living in such a cosmopolitan area! I get my suppositions and hypotheses about people challenged on a regular basis. But…what preferences or biases am I following without being aware?

Look like us = One of us?

Pankaj Ghemewat wrote an interesting post on the HBR Blog Network, Stretching Your Global Mindset. His previous post opened with an observation about how the Arab Spring and the tsunami in Japan made it very apparent how interconnected and even interdependent the world is. When supply chains are disrupted, there is a network of businesses that reaches beyond borders right into our own backyards. Maybe it’s your business and you had to figure out how to respond to a global event.

In Stretching Your Global Mindset, Ghemewat discusses a study that reveals that the further away people affected by a disaster live, the less sympathetic people feel. In a nutshell, if a disaster occurs on the other side of the world versus one in your own country, you will care a great deal more about the people in your country.

Curiously, travel seems to mitigate this.  Well, maybe it’s not so curious. When you meet people from somewhere else, that place becomes real and the people become less strange. They become “one of us”. And when you live there for a length of time, could you (or part of you) become one of  them?

A past client of mine who has a strong affinity for Japan presented an interesting request. She explained that she lived there so it feels like home to her. Speaking Japanese is effortless for her. Her request was to modify how we approached writing her business plan to include imagery rather than creating a linear document.  The result? Her business plan is formatted as a mindmap and is mostly in Japanese. (She provided a translation for me so we could measure her progress).

You’re not from around here, are you?

Maybe it is something wired into our primitive survival instincts. If you’re different, you’re a potential enemy. It underpins the argument for isolationism in political debates.  If you hear someone saying, “I’m not racist but…”, are they really expressing hatred or are they trying to understand how their neighborhood is changing? The thing is, the world has become so connected with social media, ease of travel and  immigration that we can meet someone different very easily. We don’t even have to physically leave our own country to do business with someone who speaks a different language and looks different.

It’s not always comfortable.

It’s easy to get out of your comfort zone while interacting with someone from another country. There can be language barriers. (Yes, even with other English speakers. I’ve managed to create a lot of confusion just telling bar staff that I didn’t want another drink.) There are phrases and slang that we use without thinking. In a business setting, this can create unnecessary tension. There are countries where “yes” isn’t actually yes. Speaking a foreign language is challenging if you’re building up your proficiency. In some places, you have to develop a relationship before you discuss business. These are some of the things that can highlight your preferences in a hurry.

What is going on in your head anyway?

  • Do you want everyone to communicate in your language?
  • Do you have certain beliefs that all (other nationality) are (generalization)?
  • Does the business relationship have to follow a particular pattern?
  • Are you willing to learn the language of your customer/business collaborator?
  • How would adapting your behavior change your thinking?
  • What else are you thinking or feeling?

Not every business is going to do business globally.

But if your business is one of them, becoming aware of your cultural filter is essential. We hear stories, we meet people and we have the choice to broaden or narrow our mindset. There are some days when landing on an alien planet will make more sense. The tension felt is an opportunity to see what biases or preferences you have. Your greater self-awareness may be the difference between going forward or staying home.

*Please join us on Friday, August 5th at 12pm ET/5pm BST/9am PT on the Twitter chat, #kaizenblog as we explore this topic in conversation.