Why awareness of culture is so important for leaders and lawyers

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This is the last in a series of articles in conversation with Caroline Skinner, the General Counsel for G4S Europe Middle East, and Ingrid Van Berkel, a former Eversheds Sutherland Partner and now a TPC Leadership executive coach and facilitator. Here they discuss why awareness of culture is an essential part of development for leaders.

Cultural awareness is not always easy to acquire. In our last post, Caroline demonstrated some of the many ways she needed to adapt when she was appointed to the role of General Counsel for G4S in the Middle East by G4S. Without anyone to give her any guidance, learning how to be sensitive to other cultures was a matter of quick learning and sometimes trial and error.

Caroline, a long-time lawyer and General Counsel for the multinational G4S, says that learning cultural awareness is so important because in both business and legal matters, people can have the same facts but feel very differently about them, both on an emotive and intellectual level. It is how we both understand and take steps to deal with this disparity that can make the difference between an unsuccessful or successful meeting.

The cost of overlooking culture

Reflecting on her experiences in the Middle East, Caroline notes that it was critical for her to understand culture as values. This is what helped her to adapt to her environment and communicate effectively.

“It’s very easy to commit a faux pas,” she says. “For instance, I had to learn that, in general in the Middle East, I should not ask an Arab man about his wife or other female members of his family unless he first volunteers information. So I had to be careful not to cause offense when trying to make small talk and break the ice in a meeting.”

As another example, in Europe lawyers are used to looking people in the eye. It often signals that a person is both engaged and trustworthy. But in certain countries in the Middle East, if Caroline looked a man in the eye, it could be interpreted as flirtatious and potentially cause the other person to feel uncomfortable or even cause offence. So she adapted her behaviour to respect local values of modesty.

“Without cultural awareness in such places, people can cause offence, leading to a breakdown of business relationships. While a lack of compliance to local culture and modesty or other laws could even get you arrested,” she says. “So if you’re a leader and you’re planning to send someone abroad, or into a meeting with people from another culture, you need to understand that they’re not fully equipped for it until they receive appropriate cultural awareness training.”

What leaders know is how leaders see

Our cultural norms are often more ingrained and unconscious than we realise. Ingrid is a former co-Managing Partner of Eversheds-Sutherland Dutch offices and is now a TPC Leadership coach and facilitator. Reflecting on her own culture, she acknowledges that everyone says that the Dutch are far too direct in their conversations. Their common communication style is often seen as impolite and undiplomatic. 

“It might be more difficult for the Dutch to be abroad than anyone else,” says Ingrid. “But it is important to be aware of differences in every corporate environment, in every company and every law firm.”

She refers to the current discussion taking place about the differences between extroverts and introverts. It’s an important issue for the Western world, she says, because in these cultures it’s almost always the extroverts that are in management and leadership positions. This issue should be addressed in the diversity agenda of a company.

“They’re the ones speaking up, presenting their thoughts fluently and giving direction confidently,” she says. “But introverts may have different leadership skills we sorely need, like listening. Without an awareness of our own extroverted culture, we may not realise this.”

Defusing a situation

Caroline says she discovered how everything needs to be tailored to where you work because what is acceptable or what is meant in one place may have a different meaning in others. In Asia, she notes, in meetings people will often say what they believe you want to hear, not what they actually think or intend to do. 

“You reach the end of a meeting and you think you’ve got an agreement, a consensus ad idem in a legal sense,” says Caroline. “But you actually don’t, it’s only that they’ve simply been trying to show you respect by seemingly agreeing to proposals.“

One of the most important points to understand about another culture, she says, is knowing one or two key local phrases will defuse a situation. When you’re travelling to many countries on business, it’s near impossible to learn every language, but it doesn’t necessarily need fluency to help bring the tension down. 

“If I was in a meeting in the Middle East and it was getting tense, I would say ‘no problem’ in Arabic,” says Caroline. “And often the people I was talking to would laugh because I was trying to use a few words of local language and this often defused a tense negotiating situation, and we could resume the meeting on a better, more conducive footing.”

Why soft skills are critical here

Caroline says that personal development and cultural awareness training is becoming increasingly important as more companies go global. On any given day we might be dealing with people who have different customs and cultural values to us, even if it is only through video conferencing.

“More sensitivity and awareness of the person sitting opposite you is always going to be helpful,” she says. “It doesn’t only help us work with other personality types but with people with a different upbringing, religion or nationality. To understand who you’re doing business with is essential to being successful.”

Ingrid notes that soft skills are often underestimated by lawyers, who typically prefer to value hard expertise. But in a recent coaching meeting, she was speaking broadly with a lawyer about their skillset, and they were shocked when they realised they were talking about soft skills.

“So I want to get rid of the term ‘soft skills’,” says Ingrid. “Because to me it seems that these are equally important skills for a lawyer.”

If you are a lawyer looking to hone your skills in leadership development,  get in touch to find out how TPC Leadership can help you.

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