In our flattened, ever-connected global marketplace, success hinges largely on how well people are able to influence others. Engineers and those in operations are often focused on influencing people internal to the organization, while marketing departments typically dwell in the realm of influencing external customers and the media. Matrixed organizations complicate the situation, demanding the use of influencing skills up, down, and sideways. And then there are regulatory bureaucrats to contend with, posing complex problems in all parts of the world.
When working with people from other cultures, which influencing techniques will work best?
Well, it depends…
There are a few patterns that can be helpful for those who are working across cultures on a regular basis and do not have time to brush up on the specific influencing skills used in those cultures. Here are some examples:
The first thing to note is that some cultures are more “universalistic” than those in which issues tend to be gauged from a “situational” perspective. People who take a universalistic approach to influencing are for the most part unlikely to vary their tactics to accommodate different situations, seeking instead to remain consistent with laws, ethics, policies, or principles. But those who see things situationally will have an arsenal of tactics to use depending on who is involved, how well they know the people they are trying to influence, and what needs to be accomplished.
In many of the cultures in which indirect communication is valued, influencing tends to take the forms of cajoling, hinting, pestering, or emotional appeals. Cajoling is a lighthearted way to convey one’s wishes while avoiding high-pressure tactics. Pestering, or repetitively mentioning a desire or request, is thought by many indirect communicators to be a sure way to convey the relative importance of an issue. Indirect communication also lends itself to disjointed or circular patterns of communication, as topics may be revisited in a way that reveals a deeper level of meaning.
When working with direct communicators, however, emotional appeals may be regarded as beside the point; cajoling and pestering are often perceived as irritating and childlike. Hinting is generally useless. Tactics that are more effective include convincing, which entails using logic and data to bolster a case. Assertiveness sometimes works as well, especially when it is wrapped in causal logic—“If you don’t do X, then Y will happen.”
For people from cultures in which human differences based on status or hierarchy are emphasized, influencing usually takes place through top-down communication, and often involves giving orders or simply demanding that things be done.
Bottom-up communication tends to be channeled through close senior/subordinate relationships and often takes place in informal settings where relative openness is acceptable. In the workplace it is also sometimes attempted through hinting or flattering.
In equality-oriented cultures, a different set of tactics is commonly used in attempts to influence others. Convincing and requesting are the most commonly employed approaches, but in some cases pointed criticisms are acceptable as well. (“We need to change this to X, because Y is not working well.”)
It is often said that the best foundation for being able to influence others is to build trust and demonstrate trustworthiness. But once again, how one builds trust and demonstrates trustworthiness varies from culture to culture. For example:
So if building trust and demonstrating trustworthiness are difficult without knowing specifics about different cultures, how can busy leaders hope to influence others?
One-on-one conversations with individuals from another culture can be a useful first step in exerting influence across boundaries. Discussions should occur in person if possible, or over the telephone. Please note that communicating via e-mail or holding meetings or conference calls are generally ineffective.
Such behind-the-scenes discussions enable the person from the other culture to share information that might not be appropriate in a group setting. Talk with more than one person, if necessary, in order to hear ideas and opinions from a representative sample. The bigger the group to be influenced, or the more complex the issue, the more people one should approach for advice.
Hearing the opinions of those from other cultures enables the appropriate crafting of messages and influencing techniques according to the situation and the culture.
Personalized strategies on influencing can be viewed in the GlobeSmart Profile, which offers practical advice for adapting your work style across five dimensions of culture.