Cultural Adaptability – Using Behavioral Intelligence to Connect Across Cultures

In an ever-growing global workplace, people’s ability to work across cultures is now an essential skill. Culture is a main driver of behavior and can create intersections of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Understanding the defining characteristics of culture, learning to be more aware of its influence on behavior, and exploring strategies to become more adaptable gives leaders and practitioners of any industry a significant advantage over those who do not comprehend these ideas.

For example, understanding that different cultures designate different members of the family as decision makers when it comes to health, finances, or other critical issues can mean the difference between building rapport and alienating the potential relationship. Whether you are in healthcare, sales, wealth management, banking, or other industry that interacts with people, you have four seconds to analyze the situation, recognize which family member is the designated authority, and act accordingly.

In our Cultural Adaptability Training program, we highlight the importance of those first four seconds. Participants often include people working in the healthcare industry, where lives are at stake and tensions are high. Nurses, social workers, physicians, and health administrators who understand culture and are willing to adapt to the norms and values of others see an increase in patient satisfaction scores, adherence to medical regimens, and better health outcomes.

Cultural Adaptability and Preferred Outcomes

I was working with a group of nurses and shared with them some of the key body language clues that would guide them in identifying the decision maker within the family unit; that is, if they were able to spot the nonverbal messages in the first four seconds of the interaction.

When they understood that speaking to the mother in some cultures would be damning to their credibility, they balked and felt that they had the right to talk to whomever they chose. ‘It’s not right. The mother should have just as much say in the decisions of their child.’ This is not an uncommon sentiment, but unfortunately it does not matter what “we” think. What matters is how willing we are to adapt our mode of thinking to the way that “others” think. I typically handle this the same way each time and here’s how:

  • Me: I do not necessarily disagree with you. You certainly have the right to speak with whomever you like. But let me ask you, what is your primary purpose when it comes to your patients?
  • Practitioner: The patient’s health outcome.
  • Me: If a patient’s family trusts you, are they more likely to support your recommendations?
  • Practitioner: Yes, of course.
  • Me: If the patient’s family likes you, are they more likely to give you critical and personal information?
  • Practitioner: Again, yes, of course.
  • Me: If you offend them, will they easily cooperate with you?
  • Practitioner: Probably not so much.
  • Me: If you can create a positive relationship by adhering to their cultural values, and that could lead to a better outcome, is that more important than your personal feelings?
  • Practitioner: ………..Ok, keep going.

Cultural adaptability is the willingness to learn and accept another culture’s way of behaving. It doesn’t mean that you have to like it, it doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it; what it means is that you are willing to accept that different cultures operate with different values, beliefs, traditions, rituals, norms, and behaviors. They are neither good nor bad, just different.

And it’s not just healthcare that finds a value for learning the in’s and out’s of cultural adaptability; choose the decision maker wisely and the conversation continues, or choose poorly and you have a hill to climb if you want to re-establish trust. This is an ideology that relays into all professions and even your every day life.

Moving past our judgement and biases is essential to understanding. Understanding allows for diversity and inclusion to become operational advantages for the organizations that foster these values. Cultural adaptability is a pre-condition to effective communication, relationship building, and high-functioning cross-cultural team performance.

Increasing a workforce’s capacity for cultural adaptability can create a healthy and productive workplace, while also reducing an organization’s risk of fostering tension amongst different cultures. But how can we accomplish this, especially with so many cultures entering the global workforce? By focusing on a behaviorally intelligent strategy of improving awareness; seeking to understand existing behaviors; opening space for mutual existence; and most importantly controlling our own behaviors in cultural interactions, we become more adaptable, which consistently leads to better relationships and outcomes across any industry.

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