Companies are increasingly turning to international vendors to assist in project completion. Hiring an outside vendor or contractor can speed up the work and introduce to your team an in-demand skill set that can’t be found locally.
However, working with people across the globe presents its own set of cultural challenges. Before you agree to work with international vendors, make sure you have an onboarding plan to reduce friction and cultural conflicts.
The Need for Cross-Cultural Onboarding is Growing
When a company has a developed cross-cultural training program, its employees feel more comfortable working with international vendors. However, this is only the first benefit to your company. Greter Sierra lists a few additional benefits of cross-cultural training in an article for eLeap:
- Your staff can develop a better understanding of your vendor’s needs and differences.
- Showing your commitment to understanding cultures can forge stronger partnerships.
- Businesses can acquire highly rated vendors through their cultural expertise.
- Employees acquire new skills and experience working with these vendors, which can prepare them for advancements in their careers.
Even if you’re not expanding across the world, developing an onboarding strategy now can help you in the coming years if you ever work with vendors, clients or employees on different continents.
And in the process, you’ll likely learn valuable lessons about your own organization. “It can be an extremely humbling experience to open your operations to differing cultures and lifestyles,” Pratik Dholakiya writes at Entrepreneur.
How to Successfully Onboard International Vendors
Cultural onboarding requires the same structure as employee or contractor onboarding. Both parties need to be aware of each other’s needs and the policies for effective cooperation. Use these 12 tips to help shape your own policies.
Set Clear Goals and Milestones for Improvement
Tara Waddle encourages project managers to approach cultural onboarding with a similar process as company or department onboarding. This includes creating measurable goals and setting milestones for improvement.
As you work with your international teams, you can start to develop better plans as needed or create additional tasks to fill in the knowledge and culture gaps. This might include creating clearer communication policies or scheduling lunch-and-learn meetings to brainstorm ways to overcome cultural differences.
Know That Culture Is Only One Aspect Of Your International Team
There’s a significant difference between understanding someone’s culture and pigeonholing them into an expected stereotype. Making assumptions about a person based on his or her culture can be just as damaging as ignoring that culture entirely.
“Culture is only one potential influence on a person’s style, his behavior, and how he perceives things,” Andy Molinsky tells the Harvard Business Review. “You should have a working hypothesis but test it against evidence.”
For example, Americans have a reputation for being loud and confident. However, their individual personalities often differ from this perceived stereotype. A person’s nationality is only one aspect of who they are.
Focus on Communication Styles
“A good training program addresses invisible and subtle differences between people of different cultures,” Raju Chebium writes at SHRM. This means looking beyond basic cultural habits like shaking hands and diving into deeper communication strategies to understand what employees and employers are really trying to say.
Chebium uses an example of an American employer who might focus on positive traits, while a French employee is used to blunt criticism. How someone says something and presents themselves is often more important to the running of a business than understanding the proper way to give a handshake.
Make Note of Cultural Competencies
Ovidiu Voina grew up in Bucharest but started working with vendors in India. He was shocked by their ability to negotiate deals within the company. On a visit to India, he followed them through the local markets and quickly learned where they picked up such strong negotiation techniques. Almost every price tag — from food to decor — was negotiable, making haggling over prices a part of everyday life.
Cultural differences aren’t always roadblocks that need to be addressed. They’re also strengths that you can play on to benefit your business.
Understand Cultural Hierarchies
Hierarchy in business differs widely across cultures. Some countries follow a strict linear hierarchy, where senior managers are always given preference over others. Other countries have flatter management styles where everyone contributes equally.
“Whether or not those in junior or middle-management positions feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, questioning senior decisions, or expressing a differing opinion can be dictated by cultural norms,” the team at Hult Business School writes.
What you might perceive as shy employees might actually be confident employees following their cultural norms.
Use Test Assignments to Identify Culture Gaps
“Too often, we throw people into a team and expect them to start working on a complex project immediately,” Debbie Narver writes at Narver Management Consulting. “This stress can greatly inhibit trust building. In fact it can lead to conflict, which if not managed, can result in long lasting resentment and mistrust.”
Consider working with your international teams on smaller projects or test assignments to understand their workflow in a low-stress situation. This will help you identify training gaps and prioritize lessons before your foreign teams work with crucial clients.
Evaluate the Cultural Implications of New Corporate Policies
Before starting any new project, policy or initiative internationally, consider whether those changes could cause cultural friction with any providers or teams. Doing this could prevent future headaches (and might force your company to rethink launching an overbroad program).
“Make sure you filter what you’re doing through the logic of the new cultural system,” Dr. Robin Moriarty writes. “Have cultural translators, people in your organization familiar with both cultures, work to identify which systems, processes, and procedures can be universally applied, and which need ‘tweaking,’ or even more complete reimagining.”
Moriarty uses examples of companies creating new reporting and compensation policies that were expected to apply to foreign and domestic offices. What seemed like a great solution for an American office wrecked havoc on Asian and South American work structures.
Clearly Explain the Objectives of Every Task Within the Project
Small tasks like documentation or reporting might seem unimportant to international teams, but they could be crucial to maintaining a balanced project. Project Managers need to make sure they communicate the objectives and purposes behind tasks to ensure international vendors fully understand their purposes.
“Managers must have the language and communication skills to convey the strategy effectively in the first place and to continue to link ongoing performance management activities clearly to organisational objectives,” Nina Mehta-Vania writes at Training Zone.
Assign a Cultural Liaison to Help Your International Teams
One of the best ways to ensure smooth collaboration with an international vendor is to assign someone to work as a vendor liaison.
Melissa Hahn at the Harvard Business Review encourages teams to assign someone to make the transition easy on vendors. By giving your international teams a point person and mentor, they can feel comfortable bringing issues to light or asking questions about company protocol.
This spokesperson is also in charge of communicating and speaking for the international teams if dramatic time zones prevent them from attending meetings or calls throughout the day.
Hire Based on Cultural Competency, Not Language Proficiency
If you’re hiring liaisons, test them for more than language proficiency to make sure they’re a good fit. The team at Shepell cautions employers that simply knowing a language and understanding a region’s culture are two different things.
For example, Spanish-speaking cultures vary dramatically from Spain to Argentina. Or even within the same country, like India, there are different dialects and cultural norms depending on the region where you work.
Focus on finding people with experience in the exact region you’re working in so they can translate across cultures, not just languages.
Consider Changing Your Policies to Match Their Styles
Historically, companies in Europe and North America would expect their international counterparts to adapt to their cultures. However, as economic activity shifts more and more toward countries such as Japan, China and India, more businesses are understanding the value of tailoring their business practices to those cultures.
“There has been a small shift from ‘our way’ to ‘let’s try and understand your way’,” the team at Commisceo Global writes. “Why? Because western organisations are feeling the impact a lack of cultural sensitivity can and does have upon business performance.”
Trying to impose one standard of management can foster a toxic work environment, spur higher turnover rates and increase conflict within that second culture.
Respect the Needs of Your Home Team, As Well
Working with international vendors means finding a balance. You don’t have to completely change your culture to meet theirs, but you shouldn’t expect them to completely conform to your needs.
“A project sponsor who doesn’t appreciate that you have just spent half the night on a web conference with the manufacturing supplier in Japan will criticise a team that then goes home at 2 p.m.,” Elizabeth Harrin writes.
Try to find a few universal hours where everyone is available, and build your communication strategy around them.
You might not send your executives abroad this year or hire multiple international vendors, but if you have a plan to work internationally now you will be prepared when the time comes.