Cross-Cultural Engagement

Trio Interview

Who to call when you want to address the topic of cross-cultural engagement in organisations? 

Well, how about: Anuradha Purbey, People Director Europe and Asia at Aviva, Azad Navaz, Head of Qualification and Retail HR for Africa and Eastern Europe at BMW Group and Avinash Chandarana, Global L&D Director for MCI Group.

These senior HR hotshots, who come from various backgrounds, travelled all over the globe and have been working internationally for many years, gave us their takes on this topic in an amazing trio discussion. We captured several themes, followed by tips and tricks to inspire your own (international) practice.


“Communication, communication, communication.” 

We all know that the way information is received can differ a lot from how it was meant to be. How that interpretation goes, depends on the person’s background and culture. You always have to try to make sure people understand what you mean.

Here the concept of emotional intelligence comes in: how do we interpret the expectations of individuals, teams and cultures… How do we know how they want to be communicated to? There are lots of studies published on low context versus high context cultures. Low context cultures being for instance Anglo-Saxon cultures where communication is about information, about facts. Whereas in high context cultures like most Asian ones, communication is far more implicit, it’s about reading between the lines. It is useful to understand the models of how communication is framed in certain cultures.

The challenge starts from within. You always operate from your own culture and set of values and beliefs. You are always judging. The challenge is how do you recognize that judgement and bias. It won’t go away, because that defines you as a human being. You have to actively listen and ‘dance in the moment’ before saying what you want to say and want to achieve.

  • Check whether people understand your message the way you meant it
  • Be aware of the models of communication in certain countries
  • Be aware of your own judgement


“Travelling made me a better person.”

Shake hands, wait a while before diving into matters, accept a business card with two hands – all important stuff, but it’s superficial. It does not say anything about why people act the way they do nor into what they think. As a way to get there, immersion is great – Azad has travelled for 1000 days, Avinash lived in 180 host families – but you still have to be curious as well. 

Being able to move around is a ticket, but what you do with that experience is what shapes you. When you see somebody acting or looking different from what you had expected, what do you do with that experience? Do you take a moment a change your neuro-structure? Or do you let yourself get bypassed?

‘Oh that’s different!’ needs to be followed by ‘and why is it different?’ ‘And what does that say about me?’ To get to adaptation, to acculturate, you have to get to a deeper level. Asking questions is the way there.

And the very first question has to be addressed to yourself as well: why are you curious? Why do you want to know more about people or a certain culture? Your motivation has to be intrinsic as it takes a lot of commitment, determination and energy to get out of your box and move beyond your ‘old’, familiar points of reference. 

  • Ask yourself: why would I be interested in different cultures? Find a motivation
  • Get immersed if you can
  • Ask questions


“You are the average of the five people you interact with most.”

So, being curious, huh? As easy as it sounds, it does not come naturally to many of us. Up until recently, it was common to believe this was not a trait that could be taught. Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset shows us that the opposite is true. Anuradha took the experiment further in her own organisation, using art as a means. For instance, when people are asked to draw a hand, everyone starts with the shape. This is how our mental models work, this is the box we are in. Asked to try again and work with light, shades and measurements instead, the employees came to remarkable results. 

Translating that into an organisation setting, it means constantly challenging your thinking. Whose need are we serving with this project? Is it the customers’ need or is it in fact my need? Often it’s my need! Individual learning through an immersive experience, it's the primer on the wall. After that, you can apply a framework like design thinking to do problem-solving.

This doesn’t go into cross-cultural learning per se, but it does go in to the challenges that we are facing doing that, like empathy, emotional intelligence, curiosity and perceptions. These are all trainable things. When you do go to cross-cultural training, make sure the right people are involved: a German is probably less suited to teach on how to approach Indians.

Not everyone will turn out to be a great communicator. Leaders often aren’t. In that case, facilitation might be useful to help cross-cultural engagement: someone in the room who understands intercultural differences and opens up the minds of the managers.

  • Invest in curiosity: challenge your individual mindset
  • Use models to help you step into the shoes of someone else
  • Take cultural differences seriously: work with the right people and consider facilitation 


“You cannot paint the whole world using the same paintbrush.”

One size fits all is clearly a recipe for disaster in global business. Remember the American supermarket Walmart trying to set foot in Germany. They trained Germans to give American service to German customers in an American way, welcoming them with a big smile, packing their groceries. Germans hated it, and Walmart lost billions. There’s a whole graveyard of such stories, just because HQ assumes they know all.

Anuradha, Azad and Avinash agree: HQ has to come up with a broad framework on what the outcome should be. Then you have you to win people’s hearts in different countries. Consider the ripple effect and work backwards from there.

One of the consequences: you have to get people from different countries involved in the design of the project, so that you take into account their purpose, their values and how those values are shaped, including the terminology they use. The more informed you are, the more inclusive you are, the less judgemental you are up front. 

Another insight: give each market the flexibility to own the project. Low context cultures will roll it out in a way that makes sense. The Asians will do a lot of storytelling. Give them space, get them empowered: as long as they stay within the framework of what you want to achieve. When people feel empowered with knowing that the solutions lie within themselves instead of being told to do something, the buy-in is greater.

Leaders are very important in this process. What stories do they tell, what does purpose mean to them? They have to be vulnerable. They should not only talk about successes, but also about: what could we have done differently?

  • Get different people involved in the design, the process
  • Align on outcome: give flexibility and empowerment to each market 
  • Use transparent and vulnerable leadership 


“We are meant to be in the jungle!”

So many cultures… Sometimes there seems to be an ocean of differences between stamp sized countries like Belgium and The Netherlands, between the North and the South of the UK, between every North and South actually… even in Germany!

Anuradha provokes by saying she suspects people are often hiding behind cultures, when the matter is actually about good leadership or simply being a decent human being. She claims we are so focussed on finding differences, yet her international experience proves to her people are very common everywhere. 

A very interesting question: what is common, which parts are shaped by your personality and which parts are culture?

People are emotional creatures, our trio confirms. This is how we are wired; rational justification comes afterwards. Being aware of this, accepting this reaction from yourself, yet looking for ways to meet people where they are, is the way to move forward. “It’s like peeling an onion,” Anuradha claims. “At the heart of things seeing that we are all after the same things: people want to be understood, we want to be developed and we want to be recognized.”

Emotions manifest themselves differently in various cultures. Again self awareness is key in dealing with those differences. That and being open to the fact that, just like personalities, cultures can change as well.

Article summarized and edited by @Marjon Meijer

This interview was first published on the Change Mindset Tribe - an international online platform for professionals working in the domain of HR, L&D, (Internal) Communication or Change who are involved in change projects. Interested?

The full video of the trio-interview will also be available for Tribe Members.