MBA students a tool for self-insight and self-leadership

by | Sep 26, 2023

The meeting was going brilliantly. Everyone was on the same page. The Americans closed their folders, delighted. “We’re all agreed, then?” There was a polite murmur of assent.

The Americans went back to their headquarters, and prepared to complete the deal. But there was a problem. When their new colleagues had said “Yes, of course,” they were being polite. It didn’t actually mean “Yes, your price is agreeable to us, we can deliver that amount of goods, and we’re going to go through with the deal”. It meant – in their culture – “We’re prepared to talk, to start dickering over the details”.

Intercultural relations are a minefield strewn with flowers. Learning to work with people from other cultures can be so rewarding – but if you’re not listening carefully, it can also blow up in your face.

Direct versus indirect communication is one of those horribly unexpected Jack-in-the-Boxes. Sometimes it has to do with time: for Germans, “I’ll see you at 2pm” means 2pm sharp, and it would offend to rock up at 2:15 or 2:30. Other cultures may vary; traditionally, in England, you’re exactly on time for lunch, but around half an hour later for a party, to give your hosts time to relax and prepare.

Learning to swim happy through different cultures, and not get stuck in an attitude of “what we do in my country is right”, is as valuable a skill in business as in diplomacy.

Uwe Napiersky, a German psychologist and academic who is Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in Business Psychology at Aston University/Business school in the city of Birmingham in the north of England, has been helping people to develop their intercultural competence for many years. “Before I went into academia I was doing intercultural courses with global corporate clients,” Uwe says. He searched for the right tools to help him. “Some of the available tools are over-engineered – very interesting, very good – but not fit for purpose in a teaching environment.”

He found the IRC, the Intercultural Readiness Check, in 2012. “I like using the IRC because it is evidence-based; however, it has simplicity. The IRC is grounded in research on more than 45,000 people who were in the studies that developed the tool; the research was very robust.”

Uwe uses the Intercultural Readiness Check to teach his MBA (Masters of Business Administration) students at Aston University about intercultural competences.

The IRC enables Uwe’s students to sharpen their soft skills in terms of developing their intercultural antennae. It is a practice as well as a process. Uwe compares this learning to the way that we learn and internalise physical skills. “I can learn how to drive a car, and learn it well. But if you don’t apply it for a couple of years you will unlearn it. The same with intercultural competences.”

Using the IRC, he says, is the start of a structured process, making it easy for him to talk about communication. “You are dealing with cultural uncertainty, you help people to realise ‘You must switch on your antennae – you are in another culture; there are maybe different rules – how to dress, how to behave, how to write a letter, how to approach things’. People come from different learning systems, and once they are here two or three months, they realise that this is done differently from the culture they come from.”

The college in Birmingham has a huge range of cultural backgrounds in its students, who come from every continent to study there.
The IRC opens the door for understanding of intercultural issues, Uwe says. “The story for me is that teaching in a setting like this, you have the ingredients, you have the tools, and you put them together and make it a success for your participants. When someone is assessed, we look in the reflective writing to see what are the key insights that people have.”

Uwe’s students keep a journal, taking the findings on their own intercultural competences as measured by the IRC, and setting them against their daily experience and learnings as they study for the MBA. This reflexivity – the reflective journaling of their experience and thoughts – brings them deep into an understanding of their own attitudes and competences as they change and grow.

For MBA students the learnings are generally about how they behave in teams, within business situations. “I try to translate the knowledge gained through the insights of the IRC into learning. What we are doing is experiential learning. We want to create this reflexivity for people, and in looking into self-leadership – where one uses the doing, energising and thinking self – we want to push the thinking button, develop the thinking muscles, and let us say, to experiment with behaviour.

“In learning in a university, you are allowed to make mistakes. And sometimes we do these little exercises, fun exercises, where students can behave in a culturally affronting way – the opposite of the typical behaviour – and let’s see what we get out of this, for instance deliberately queue-jumping to see the English reaction.”

One of the favourite exercises is to spot political bloopers by world leaders, a rich source of wisdom on how to avoid intercultural gaffes.

Uwe points out that a lot of people have anxiety when they are working in different cultures because they do not actually know how to behave correctly. “As [Geert] Hofstede [the Dutch specialist in organisational culture] says, culture is a mental programming of people [1]. What we are working on is fine-tuning the mental programming. I don’t know if that’s the magic zone, but that’s where we try to place our focus in teaching, to train these mental muscles.”

Year after year, Uwe has gained feedback from his students that the ability given to understand their own intercultural competences is a useful one. “There are multiple examples of that enlightenment feeling, where you see the smile on a face – that the penny has dropped. And for some people learning has to do with anxiety to overcome. People are afraid, if they don’t understand the cultural implication of things, because they come from within a different culture,” he says.

“Under the umbrella of soft skills, we are getting our students to gain more intercultural competence. We are proud that we are here very diverse in terms of nationalities. Giving students an insight into intercultural aspects helps our students to learn and to develop.”

A typical example: somebody arrives fresh from another continent directly from the airport into a classroom in Birmingham. “With all its charm, Birmingham UK – what the city and the country and the society stand for, what work culture is there – students come maybe from the middle of India, Africa, Asia, the United States, and it’s a different culture they’re diving into.”

Uwe is by background a business psychologist who has worked in more than 50 countries. “In psychology we talk about four stages: you are unconsciously incompetent, then consciously incompetent, and then you come into the higher stages of becoming more aware of the skills and applying them. At first you may be a bull in a china shop – you don’t even know when you make a mistake.”

Awareness-building, he says, is central to learning processes. You learn where is your comfort zone, and what is outside that zone. “A typical cultural mistake is when a man holds out his hand automatically for a handshake with a woman and she says, ‘Oh no, in my culture it’s not allowed’.”

This awareness typically comes in the students’ reflective writings – when they use their insights into their own cultural competences from the IRC questionnaire to probe how they feel and act. “I say to them, ‘Soft skills will make your hard skills shine.’ It is in the mid-term and long-term you will gain from this, to be good in communication, or in leading a team.

“I think where the penny drops is often in the team situation. I’ve heard people saying ‘Ah, now I understand why people behave differently.’ A concrete example I’ve seen in some individuals is, once they get the key for this intercultural perspective, they can unlock the reason for dysfunctionality in their teams. They realise – stop a moment, we have two, three, four different cultures here; oh, in this culture their way of communication is more indirect, whereas in that, it’s more direct; that’s why we have tension, maybe we need to slow down the process. The price of working in intercultural teams is that you need more time.”

The IRC opens the door for understanding of issues like these. “The story for me is that teaching in a setting like this, you have the ingredients, you have the tools, and you put them together and make it a success for your participants. “Some get more out of it, some less – because for them, it’s not relevant. But when someone is assessed, we look in the reflective writing to see what are the key insights that people have.”

[1] See Geert Hofstede, Geert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov (2010) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival (page 4). 3rd Edition, McGraw-Hill, London.

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