I recently returned from Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and a bustling, ancient, and rapidly modernizing city. My client engaged my company to help communicate common principles of daily business conduct to its leaders meeting in Asia. As a baby boomer who attended college in the late 60’s and early 70’s, this is one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had.
During my stay in Hanoi, I learned at least as much as I taught. Surprisingly, I found that much of what is applicable in terms of core behavioral standards and expectations in the U.S., Europe, and South America also translates in Asia, and likely other global locales, as well. My lessons may be useful for other organizations seeking to join their dispersed workforces into workplace communities sharing a core of common behaviors.
As background, the participants I met work with colleagues from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and China. As I thought about the assignment, I considered how best to communicate with such a multicultural, multinational, multiethnic group. I spoke with friends and experts in the United States and Asia asking for their suggestions. I got lots of great feedback, much of it suggesting a maze of contradicting considerations.
I heard that I would encounter different regional communication styles – one part of the audience would be open, direct, and confrontational; the other would be attentive, agreeable, and quiet. Some participants would be working in regions where the law is fast emerging, tracking western patterns of protection, while others would hail from nations where such laws are either much weaker or in early stages of consideration. Some participants would be living in countries that have long-standing animosities between them that originate from religious, political and philosophical differences.
Particularly in the U.S. and Western Europe, codes of legal obligations drive learning, often anchored by the force of local statutes and regulations. To state this as diplomatically as I can, however, none of the regions presented would rally around U.S. or western legal and cultural standards as the rationale for setting their own guidelines of behavior. I knew this before my trip, my colleagues confirmed it, and members of the audience gently reminded me of that point.
The sessions I presented ran smoothly. Participants spoke up and most seemed to understand and agree with the business need for basic civility and professional conduct. Spreading the standards we discussed is part of an ongoing process to build and sustain workplace culture.
As commerce explodes and misdeeds in one area can affect another, getting people to interact professionally, address problems, and raise concerns will become increasingly critical.
Here’s what I’ve learned, which can serve as a starting point for other like initiatives.
- Start at the top. Organizational leaders must have a clear vision for standards of behavior which are linked to their values. And, these behaviors need to be specific and simple. Of course, it’s important to have policies, but behavioral guidelines are different. They apply to daily interactions and culture, not just to internal or external requirements.
- Corporate culture can apply to everyone. The goal is to use corporate culture, value, and standards to drive common behavior. Everyone, no matter where they work, or what they look like, or what they believe, can be included as citizens of an organizational workplace community, which in day-to-day business, can bring people together and drive business results. Developing the vision and applicable behaviors of this culture is the most important first step. This must all be seen as a business initiative, not a training initiative.
- The initiative must be about business. Individuals must see how specific behaviors will help them both achieve their objectives and compete effectively. Don’t expect them to listen, much less moderate their conduct, if they believe it is conceptually important but not practical in terms of their daily responsibilities. Philosophical arguments won’t change behavior.
- The business objectives must get people’s attention. They include: productivity, profitability, teamwork, recruitment, retention, engagement, morale, brand image, and risk management, as key examples. A global initiative won’t stick as effectively if it is about global niceties as opposed to global business necessities.
- Individuals want to see for themselves that standards make sense. Changing behavior and setting standards are most effective when individuals see the logic and value themselves rather than having it dictated to them. It takes a lot less energy to get people to act the way they want to rather than the way they have to.
- Have specific, clear and “modest” goals. The more standards and rules involved, the less likely that any will be sustained. It’s important to stress being careful about certain types of verbal and physical behavior, maintaining records, getting help, maintaining consistency and welcoming concerns. These are simple principles which yield a huge impact when followed.
- Local leaders must keep behavioral messages alive. Initiatives can originate from corporate leadership, but they must be delivered, embraced, and kept alive by local representatives from executive leadership to first-line supervisors.
- Trust is important everywhere. Focusing on trust as a component of this initiative – meaning the bonds established between the organization, its leaders and its team members – is a universally accepted principle. This means that once the organization lays out key principles, it must have its leaders model them, talk about them, and reward or correct instances of positive or problematic conduct.
- There may be differences in how individuals raise concerns, but raise them, they will. These may be cultural or individual, but leaders at the team level must develop skills and practice them. This will encourage their team members to speak up promptly and clearly about problems. Global hotlines are useful, but they won’t work alone to surface and help resolve important problems ranging from safety to fraud to bribery and related organizational hazards.
- Training is part of the process but is not a solution. As with any business issue, standards ultimately must be communicated, reinforced, applied, and reinforced again. Culture and skills don’t develop and then stay alive based on what is referred to as a “one and done” exercise. (See principle 2.)
- Training content must reflect key themes and resonate credibly with the audience. Content which uses, for example, American issues, “slang” and characters, won’t connect effectively with a global audience, even though they may reflect the basic themes and standards which will be communicated. But developing learning content that connects with different audiences is a final step, not a first step, in launching a global initiative.
I had several highlights on my trip. First, I worked with a talented group of leaders who came from different parts of the world but were united in common objectives. They were friendly, curious and respectful to me and one another.
Second, I got to see the ancient and modern shrines, markets, and monuments of Hanoi courtesy of Ha, a gifted guide and teacher who has lived his life in his nation’s capital. He explained to me his country’s focus on scholarship and hard work and gave me an historical overview of more than 1,000 years of Vietnamese culture.
Even though we came from different backgrounds, we talked about workplace values like respect, trust, and honesty and shared similar visions. Ha helped me see that the messages I hoped to deliver would connect with my audience in Asia. We drank Coca-Cola, a symbol of a global standard if ever there was one, during our tour at a national shrine where a local vendor took this picture.