The imagery of a “fish out of water” is often used to describe a situation in which we feel uncomfortable.
When it comes to doing business globally, many businesses are impaired by acting more like a fish within water.
That is because the fish in the water does not ever really think about its environment. It is in water: it is comfortable, the water works for the fish, and the fish is happy in the water. What is there to think about?
But sooner or later, the fish, or in this case our business, wants to move to another environment to court the business there.
As a business, we pack our flippers, don our wetsuit and assume that when we get there, we will again be swimming in water just like the safe environment that we left.
We don’t realize that the water is different. It may be a much larger pool than the fishbowl we swam comfortably in at home. It may be murky water, or a different color of water, or a water filled with predators that want to eat fish.
Worse still, we may arrive wearing flippers and discover that the fish we came to visit and get business from doesn’t swim in water at all. It has abandoned its gills and operates on a land environment.
If we are not ready and able to function in the different environment or culture that we find our foreign business operating in, we will fail.
More and more businesses must compete in a global, multi cultural marketplace and that can mean negotiating new deals in unfamiliar places, setting up branch offices or plants in cultures completely different from our home base, and learning what is important to a whole new group of customers.
If we approach this challenge by assuming that the worlds we will expand to will be identical to the worlds we work in now, there will be disappointment when things do not work out as planned.
Here are three things to think about when considering competing globally:
1. Are you ready for culture shock? When you pack flippers and discover that your foreign business target walks on land, that’s how you experience culture shock. It happens because we all have a naïve tendency to think that everyone sees the world the same way we do and does things the same way we do.
2. Can you suspend your judgment calls? It is difficult for many business people to refrain from judging other people’s beliefs and behaviors when they differ from their own. Instead of judging and assuming that your cultural beliefs and protocols are superior, invest your efforts into developing your listening skills and learning about the other culture to try and understand it.
3. Can you control your responses by questioning yourself? Inevitably, you will come across a culture that is so different from your own that you have an extremely negative response to it. You can’t help it, and it begins to negatively impact your responses. When you sense that is happening, ask yourself if you have taken sufficient time to ask and learn about the country’s cultural values and beliefs that are behind the practices you find disagreeable. Ask how much of your reaction is tied to your cultural beliefs about what is right and wrong. Question whether these practices or values that you are having trouble comprehending are harming you or others. Finally, ask if the people within the culture believe a practice is harmful, or are they okay with the practice or belief.
When you conduct business daily in the same place and the same way, you stop noticing the water. Doing business on a global scale means that you will be called upon to get used to everything from tidal waves to deserts and they will command your attention. Your intercultural communication skills will be put to the test in these new environments.
How you handle these cultural diversity challenges will determine whether your outcome is beneficial or not.