Stakeholder engagement – How to make it work!

The challenge to find out what’s really going on and what people really think

incense1.jpgEnabling stakeholder feedback and two-way information flows can be challenging. However, intercultural communication skills and appropriate process are vital when engaging in stakeholder consultations with culturally diverse groups.

People in different organisational and cultural contexts have vastly different ways of interacting and engaging, and if you want to get feedback and know what people really think, there are some key strategies to ensure greater success:

1. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve

Don’t underestimate the power of thoroughly working through this with your team. Before embarking on stakeholder dialogue, ensure your team have a shared understanding of why  this is necessary and the process which will occur.  It can be immensely confusing to stakeholders and minimise trust if different reasons are mentioned by different representatives from the organiser.

2.  Engage with a representational group

Knowing who to engage with is critical. In many cultural contexts, the most accessible people may not be the most representational. They may be the most available, be the gender who are traditionally ‘spokespeople’ or the best English speakers.

Sometimes it’s better to use various engagement strategies for people at different levels. For example, a Country representative may meet for a formal lunch with senior Ministers or bureaucrats, while country staff meet with mid-level managers over a more formal casual lunch or small meetings.

3. Know how your intent might be perceived

In non-democratic political contexts, sharing information without permission can be risky.  What may be perceived as ‘sharing opinions’ in a Western context may be seen as criticism of the government in other cultures with potentially damaging personal consequences.

Don’t assume trust is a given or transparency and disclosure are easy.  In communist or socialist governments and in very hierarchical cultures, information is power and rarely shared openly. Instead it travels through trusted networks as a tradeable commodity and source of favour.

4.  Negotiate a process which meets everyone’s needs

When asking stakeholders what their needs are, sometimes it’s best to consult those with experience and knowledge of what works best.

For instance in most Asian cultures, putting people from different levels an organisation in a room and asking ‘what they think’ is highly ineffective. In many cases, the boss will speak on behalf of their team who will remain silent and share only positive information.

Often it’s more effective to have multiple smaller consultations rather than one large gathering. Wherever possible, ensure your stakeholders are in their comfort zone. Go to their world and where they feel comfortable.

5.  Ensure language is inclusive and relevant

Wherever possible, ensure stakeholders are speaking their first and most fluent language.  There are significant risks in conducting stakeholder engagement in English in non-English speaking countries.

Effectively engaging with local stakeholders can provide information to significantly influence project success and minimise the potential for violation of safeguards. Knowing in advance how your actions may be perceived, likely challenges and pitfalls and strategies to avoid them can minimise cost overruns, poor management choices and reduce risk.

The people ‘on the ground’ are the usually the most valuable resource in terms of insight and knowledge. Development of staff and employing specialist facilitators with the intercultural essentials of awareness, perspective, knowledge and capability, is critical.

Balancing the Global and the Local – the ‘What’ and the ‘How’

Balancing the need for consistency of process globally with the need to adapt to and respect local culture is a common challenge in global workplaces. However, this is not as simple as an either/or proposition. Sometimes there is the expectation that ‘When in Rome’ you should do as the Romans do.

mining safety-534517_ORIGINALWhen we are managing global workforces, the ‘what’ is often non-negotiable and universal. For example, in the mining industry, safety is a non-negotiable ‘what’ or practice. Yet, ‘how’ we achieve safety needs to be adjusted to fit into the local cultural context. In some cultures, there is a belief that nothing is ‘real’ or mandated until it is put in writing from management, and key safety processes need to be documented and distributed. In other more oral cultures, nothing is considered ‘real’ or significant unless it is heard from the mouth of a trusted friend or colleague. In such cultures, safety processes need to be discussed on a regular basis among teams.

What motivates is also a highly culturally specific thing. For example, avoidance of bringing shame onto ones’ own group will motivate appropriate behavior in some cultural contexts, whereas in other cultures such as that in Australia individual responsibility is emphasized. Particularly when it comes to performance incentives and motivation, cultural differences can have a huge impact on what works and what doesn’t. To try to introduce 360 degree feedback into a hierarchical culture can be disastrous and be a disincentive rather than engendering positive feedback.

So to ensure your global workforce is achieving, don’t forget – the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. And if you’re not sure ‘how’ and to adapt to local cultural norms, ensure you get specialist advice.

BI Update – What we’ve been up to lately…

It’s been a while – our silence has been caused by the busiest two months ever in the history of BI.  A good thing, but we are looking forward to a little time to digest the experiences of the last few months and do some writing and publishing.  The BI team has been constantly travelling and we’re looking forward to the Easter break to spend some time with friends and family.

Tom and his China map!

What we’ve been up to:

– Rolling out ‘Unconscious Bias’ training to the entire staff of a large financial institution focusing on the skills to engage with and leverage diversity

–  Delivering ‘Global Virtual Team Effectiveness’ Programs to corporate clients

– Delivering the Parents Understanding  Asia Literacy program around Australia.   I also went to Canberra to meet with Peter Garrett to discuss business needs for an Asia literate workforce.  Click here to see his related press release

– Meeting with the Review Team to provide input, and writing our submission into the ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ Government Review. Click here to read.

–  Delivering ‘Re-entry’ de-briefings, ‘Pre-posting Training’, ‘Intercultural Effectiveness’ training and ‘Working with Local Staff’ training for internationally engaged government departments

–  Advising the CEO’s and Senior Leadership teams of three large companies who are navigating key challenges in Asia

Tom, Judy, John and Ramona at BI Planning Session

–  Working with the leadership team and staff involved at a corporate client to facilitate transitioning key work to Malaysia

–  Submitting a tender to renew our preferred provider status with the Dept of Immigration & Citizenship

–  Working with a highly diverse team of an International NGO in SEAsia focusing on enabling better intercultural collaboration, dialogue and engagement

–  Planning for the Australia Thailand Business Council key event on 28 May, and the 14th International Conference on Thai Studies

Phew!  I promise our next blog post will be a review of the great books and podcasts we’ve enjoyed over the Easter break.  Hope you have a good one.

Tamerlaine

Our Parliamentary Submission & Global Leadership

Click here to read our submission to the recent Australian Joint Standing Committee on Migration.

I have been really enjoying reading Geoff Aigner’s book ‘Leadership beyond good intentions – what it takes to really make a difference’    So many of his points resonate with the experiences many of our clients are having with leadership in complex global contexts.  Aigner tells it how it is – leadership these days can be tough!  Leaders are faced with both the ‘fantasy’ version of the leader as ‘rescuer’ or ‘hero’ which is simply impossible to live up to, while being required to lead in a context where there are numerous complex and adaptive systems changes required.  While tempting, it is not possible to simply work harder and technically excel in such contexts.  Rather, leaders are required to: engage and connect with people who have very different world-views and ways of operating, navigate increasingly complex and dynamic markets and global systems; and concurrently transform the core systems of their organisation to ‘work’ within the new context.

Aigner explores the dynamics of power/compassion, authority/freedom, betrayal/trust/and identity among others.  I found a lot of parallels with the core Beasley Intercultural model which anchors so much of our work.  In globalising organisations and complex intercultural situations, we use our model SURF™

Stop & suspend judgement

Use your observation & listening skills

Recognise & respect common ground

Find common ground & be flexible in your approach

So much of the core skill required to perform in these contexts really comes down the the personal capacity of individuals to connect with others and be self-aware enough to negotiate difference.

 

Australia’s future in Asia – understanding cross-cultural complexity

Participating in a diverse or global workplace is no longer a choice.  Australia is connected and culturally diverse now, and our economic future is in the Asian region.  Forty five percent of Australians were born overseas or at least one or their parents were.  The fastest growing languages in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi.  Our children are growing up in an interconnected world where Asian economies are having increasing influence.

In my business, a large part of our role is educating our clients about the realities of Asia. When we were engaged by Austrade to research Australian perceptions of Asian markets, we found Asia was often seen ‘a traditional yet poverty stricken region which needs Australian ‘help’’, rather than a business destination.  It’s interesting to look at where these perceptions originate. Due to prolific tourism campaigns, Asian cultures are widely seen as ‘traditional’ with highly evolved local crafts and ‘cultural activities’ such as vegetable carving and local dancing.  Another key source of information about Asia is the news which features footage of frequent natural disasters and a risk of terrorism.  The perspectives of Australia one would receive through similar channels may feature the dangers of sharks, spiders, fires and floods, and oversimplified, or images of swagmen, convicts and aboriginal people throwing boomerangs.  Such imagery does not reflect the daily experience of life in Australia, nor in Asian cultures.  The images of Asia we less frequently see are those of people like you and me living their lives, travelling to work on the train (which in many Asian cities is a far more pleasant and reliable experience than in Sydney) and working in a globally connected environment with high speed internet (far higher speeds than we have in Australia). Asia is a key business destination, and many Asian economies are the fastest growing in the world.

Cultural literacy is not only about recognising the surface symbols and visual cues of cultural difference.  Such symbols can readily lead us astray, and we often hear cultural difference being minimised due to the appearance of sameness “Culture is becoming the same everywhere, people drink Starbucks and wear Levi’s”.  To understand cultural difference, one needs to explore: the difference of values, beliefs and world-views; their origins; and the implications for how people act and interact in the world.  For example, for an Australian engineer to be effective when working on an infrastructure project in China, technical skills are not enough.  Cultural literacy will often make the difference between a bridge being built or significant delays being encountered. To enable a bridge to be built, it’s important to be able to lead a cross-cultural team, to negotiate with senior bureaucrats, and to communicate clearly with key project team members.  Such skills are developed through an understanding of the world-view of counterparts, their cultural origins and ideally, local language capabilities.

Cross-cultural collaboration is increasingly complex.  We are being called upon to assist global teams collaborate in a virtual, online environment.  Last year we worked with the leadership team of a large multinational company which involved key team members from more than ten Asian cultures and one Australian office.  When the team came together, we worked with the team to discuss and agree upon shared process, common goals, and behavioural norms. Behavioural flexibility, an awareness of one’s own cultural preferences, and the ability to develop close working relationships with others are essential skills. The Australian team members committed to listen more than they speak, Japanese colleagues committed to share their opinions when asked, Thais committed to share constructive feedback. Cultural ‘awareness’ is not enough. If someone needs to be a good leader, we don’t invest in ‘leadership awareness’ training. Awareness is essential and the first step, skills development follows.  Extensive research shows, individuals who are most effective across cultures have highly developed people skills, empathy, self awareness and a tolerance for ambiguity.  Such skills make us better citizens and fully contributing members of society.  The ability to recognise the strength and validity of diverse perspectives, to negotiate difference and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes are essential skills for a rapidly changing world.  Deep learning about other cultures is a primary avenue of developing such skills.

The issues we face as Australians can not be solved by technical knowledge, or by ourselves.  Global challenges confront us:  the global economic crisis, global warming, and resource scarcity are just a few examples. Australia’s ability to thrive and prosper as a nation is dependent on our ability to collaborate with our neighbours to work toward solutions on shared issues.  Particularly in post-colonial settings, there is a resistance to outsiders ‘telling’ what should be done, or alternatively a passive acceptance of the aid revenue stream.  As has been so strongly proven through the ineffectiveness of so much international aid, technical ‘skills transfer’ and dollars alone do not effectively enable communities. Multilateral agencies such as APEC are rethinking their models of capacity building.  In 2008, we designed a framework for capacity building in APEC, commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which focuses on ‘Twinning’.  Twinning is a way of developing partnerships for capacity building.  The most effective capacity building, and development happens through incremental approaches which are tailored to the local context and involve partnerships for mutual benefit.  A good example of such partnerships in the education space is the Asia Education Foundation’s School BRIDGE project.  The project will involve 90 Australian and 90 Indonesian educators from 40 Australian and 40 Indonesian schools.  These educators will work together to develop intercultural understanding, improve professional capacity to support implementation of Internet-based collaborative learning and actively support language learning.

Education in Asian cultures is highly valued, and cross-cultural learning and language skills are recognised as the key to guarantee future employability and economic security.  Hundreds of thousands of Asian students are highly literate in the cultures, and languages of the west and also of their home countries and regions, and will be competing in a global workplace with our children. 543 000 international students were studying in Australia in 2008 (Gillard, cited in The Australian, Guy Healey, Feb 26, 2009).  There are over 300 000 Australian alumni in Malaysia, and over 95 000 Indian students currently studying in Australia.  These students become competent at traversing intercultural spaces, expect to have career paths which involve global mobility, and will be able to draw on their international networks to achieve results.

As mother of two children under four years old, I have a vested interest in contributing to the conversation about our future national curriculum.  I don’t envy the National Curriculum Board their task in such a rapidly changing context.  One thing we can be certain of in these times of change is that the world will be radically different by the time our children graduate.  The ability to navigate difference, to find common ground with people from diverse backgrounds, and to deepen our knowledge of our cultural starting point will stand us in good stead.  I truly hope the Australian education system provides my children with the opportunities to develop key Asia skills and language abilities.  I honestly believe these are the skills which they will need for the future.

By Tamerlaine Beasley
Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural