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Avoiding cross-cultural blunders

Cultural differences abound in business, but breaches of etiquette aren't inevitable. You just need some cultural intelligence.

4 min read


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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Donna Steffey.

Did you hear the one about the American businesswoman who went to China and dropped her chopsticks during lunch? The gracious Chinese manager quickly replaced everyone’s eating utensils with forks, making the American feel relieved but everyone else feel awkward.

Or did you hear the one about the Western businessman who unconsciously put his feet up on the desk, showing the sole of his shoe, in the Middle East? He so offended his clients that he lost a big opportunity.

We’ve all heard the cringe-worthy stories from colleagues who work cross-culturally about the gaffes they have inadvertently made while doing business with international partners. These blunders can sound humorous in the retelling, but they can lead to damaged work relationships and delayed business results.  

Here are three things you can do as a leader to ensure that you and your staff navigate the increasingly interconnected world of business and avoid cross-cultural blunders:

1. Offer cultural intelligence training to everyone in your organization, not just the folks who travel abroad.

It can be just as consequential to have local staff offend an international partner visiting the home office. I’m sure you heard the one about the IT guy who gave the “OK” sign to a female Brazilian manager and had to apologize afterward. The problem is that people think they can read a book or blog about a different culture and understand everything there is to know. We are often surprised to discover that the person or situation is completely different then what we expected based on our research, which is often stereotypical.

That is why cultural intelligence training involves 4 competencies.

  • Build desire for the work. Get your people enthused about working with people from other cultures. Discuss the opportunities that, by expanding beyond local boundaries, are available to people and businesses.
  • Learn about other cultures. Read books, blogs and newspapers from other cultures.
  • Strategize ways to work cross-culturally. If you have an online meeting coming up with international partners, plan how to make the call interactive. We have all heard the one about the conference call where the Western manager lectures for 20 minutes then asks if there are any questions. The answer is “No” because participants stopped listening 19 minutes ago.
  • Demonstrate correct actions. Learning and applying the correct verbal and nonverbal actions when needed in unfamiliar circumstances is essential. Utilizing awareness-in-action is also required — the ability to read people around you and to know when it is necessary to self-correct or make amends for your mistake.

2. Conduct a talent audit to assess which cultures are represented fairly within your organization and which cultures are underrepresented. You can take it a step further and assess staffs for cultural bias. Researchers say that if you have a brain, you have biases. The secret is to learn to manage one’s own biases to not allow them to negatively impact decisions, behaviors, and actions toward others.

3. Be sure your talent development partners are role models of cultural intelligence. They need to know how to design and deliver content in an inclusive way to transfer learning. There are countless books, videos and other resources to learn about cultural norms and business dos and don’ts in other countries.

Did you hear the one about the knowledgeable business leader who trained his entire staff to manage their unconscious biases, use resources to learn about other cultures and successfully built a multicultural team? That manager can be you.


Donna Steffey, MBA, CPLP, is president of Vital Signs Consulting and an international trainer, author, facilitator of the ATD Master Trainer Program and adjunct faculty at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. During her career, Steffey has designed and delivered training programs in 25 countries. She worked with 15 other training experts to write “Destination Facilitation: A Travel Guide to Training Around the World,” detailing techniques for needs assessments, design processes, facilitation and classroom management in whatever country or region you’re visiting.

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