By Judith Richards
I have taught a “Negotiation and Conflict Management” class created for the California Lutheran University MBA program for the last 11 years. For the last few years, a version of this course customized for the Executive MBA program has been taught locally and in Austria.
The curriculum includes cross-cultural role-playing with domestic and international students. Examples include the following:
• In an email negotiation between a male international student from Asia and a domestic student from the United States, the Asian student refused a reasonable deal, halted the discussion and ended up in a deadlock at the risk of receiving a F on an assignment. The Asian student alleged that the American was disrespectful, rude and overly competitive. The student from the U.S. said he was shocked that his counterpart had perceived him as “The Ugly American” and indicated that he was behaving in his normal manner.
• When a female American student attempted to close a deal by shaking the hand of a male from Saudi Arabia, he explained that would not be possible. He was unable to touch the hand of a female other than his wife or mother based on his religious beliefs. The American was embarrassed.
• A U.S. student insulted a Swedish student by calling Ikea furniture cheap. The Swede’s entire home, including kitchen cabinetry, was furnished by Ikea, and she deemed the products high quality.
Upon concluding the role-playing exercises, students complete a questionnaire pertaining to important indicators of cultural intelligence. Close to 300 students have responded so far. The results show individuals with higher-level cultural intelligence scores were far more likely to achieve their goals in cross-cultural negotiations.
Many of the survey’s results have been surprising. A minority of students are conscious of the cultural knowledge applied to cross-cultural interactions. A minority know the cultural values and religious beliefs of other cultures, or the rules for other languages and for expressing non-verbal behaviors in other cultures.
Perhaps not surprisingly based on those findings, most did not take appropriate action. A minority checked on the accuracy of their cultural knowledge, adjusted their cultural knowledge, changed their nonverbal behavior or used pause and silence differently to suit different cross-cultural interaction situations. Clearly, the majority of the students can significantly improve their cultural intelligence.
Overall, the Austrians scored higher on the cultural intelligence scale. These students are fluent in multiple languages and most have traveled extensively and interacted on a regular basis with people from different cultures in their careers.
To the credit of all the students, they displayed a high level of engagement, took the class simulation seriously and were committed to continuous improvement. They learned from each other. After a role-playing exercise involving a Japanese businessman and an American subordinate, Japanese students shared the art of bowing at a precise angle and exchanging business cards when negotiating with someone from their culture.
The students researched the myriad ways to improve cultural intelligence:
• Study cultural differences, similarities and negotiation styles.
• Talk to locals and study the politics, economy, cultural background and lifestyle of the citizens.
• Read newspapers, journals and books about the other culture.
• Ask questions of your foreign counterpart, such as their preferences for addressing them formally and informally.
Negotiators need to be willing to take more time in the preparation phase to extensively research their partners’ cultures. Consciously making adjustments based on cultural knowledge and displaying respect and empathy for other cultures can give people an advantage. Skilled negotiators understand the traditions, rules and behaviors of their counterparts’ cultures and they work to build consensus and find common ground while respecting and bridging differences. They embrace diversity and value the harmony of the relationship while seeking the best financial outcome.
• Judith Richards is a senior lecturer and MBA adviser in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.