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Shell has over 100 different nationalities in its employee population. In a global organization like Shell, people need to constantly work with people from other nationalities as part of expatriate assignments. We had a candid interaction with company’s global learning head Manojit Sen. We are elucidating few interesting points from the discussion. Global organisations like Royal Dutch Shell face the constant challenge of cross cultural communication both when dealing with external customer as well as in dealing with colleagues internally. Some of these are: Failure to Bond: Experience over years shows that customers like doing business who are like them. Equally Sales staff unconsciously look to do business with people they like and stay away from those they don’t like and bond with. The more pronounced the differences between two people, the slower the bonding process may be, especially if nothing is done to bridge the gap such as teaching people to communicate like ‘one of them’.
Hence the fate of multi billion dollar deals in oil majors such as Shell may often be tested on the strength of the ‘liking’ factor. Stereotyping: Even with the best education, almost everyone consciously or unconsciously holds onto some unfair generalizations about a given group. Recognizing and overcoming negative beliefs that we may have had since childhood can be challenging. These generalizations come in the way of truly listening to views and building on the best of ideas which have the potential to take the organization forward.
Assuming the same values: We all assume everyone shares the same values we do. This leads to judgments of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. When the values are not actually the same, actions one party takes does not meet the expectations of the other leading to frustration, attribution of intent and breakdown of trust. “Token” syndrome: In big multinationals where consciously the numbers of different minority groups have been increased over the years, people from underrepresented groups may sometimes feel that they are in the spotlight due to their low numbers. Since their difference tends to make them stand out, they may believe that they receive unfair scrutiny. As a result, they may fear making mistakes or being perceived as receiving special treatment.
“Protective Hesitation”: The cultural differences between a staff and his customer or colleagues from another culture may lead both parties to view their relationship as less solid than other relationships with people from the same culture. To overcome this, people may tend to overcompensate and then fear that the response may appear to be ‘too cosy’ and subject to criticism. Making mistakes: Whether or not staff have had a lot of experience working with people from the customer’s or colleague demographic if it from a different culture, he may inadvertently say or do something that the customer or colleague finds offensive. It’s a lot easier to get past mistakes if both parties believe that the two have the same values and mindset.
Cases where these type of issues have resulted in problems and ways in which these were handled include: 1. A Dutch project manager used to straight talking posted in UK’s North Sea Joint Venture upstream project upset the staff by telling them off on a few occasions to the point that the JV agreement was getting close to being called off. The Dutch manager had to be replaced despite his strong technical credentials and subsequent appointees were put through cultural awareness training before being sent off to this and similar JVs.
2. An Australian posted in India’s new retail operations to set up the Health, Safety, Security and Environment department was so frustrated by vendors promising to do everything and not meeting quality and timeline issues that he started to call them ‘liars’ on the face, alienating himself from the few vendors who were able to meet the quality specs of Shell. This disrespectful behavior and loss of face resulted in vendors refusing to work for Shell and consequent delays in commissioning of retail stations by over a couple of months, a stalemate that had to be broken by skillful negotiations by local managers. 3. In a virtual cross country project team working on implementation of a Retail network project months in China that had to deliver its implementation plan within 3 months, would have its team meeting every week.
From the start the Chinese staff on the team were quiet. The Americans spoke the most. They believed they were contributing and the Chinese were not. It emerged after 8 weeks when a milestone was missed that the Chinese could not understand a lot of what the Americans were saying, let alone their jokes. The team lead was prompt to realize this was a sign of impending disaster and promptly made official rules on talking time at each meeting so that everyone had his time, including time to ask clarifications and to recap what each understood. 4. A Danish IT staff was on a global SAP implementation project. Since she was reporting to a Singaporean manager, she would have to take calls early her morning. Sometimes she would have to join calls with US colleagues working on implementation issues.
With work life balance being a very important aspect of the Nordic culture, she was direct about how she felt on a number of occasions. The manager had given her the flexibility to take time off during the day to make up for this but somehow this did not help and the Danish lady started missing calls and issues did not get addressed in time. She also did not check emails or even phone messages during the weekends. Issues started to get escalated and reached the point where the vendors implementing the ERP charged Shell for delayed decisions leading to having to rework project plans and consequent costs and delays. This became a performance issue that required the staff to be replaced by someone who was much more flexible – something that was needed during this critical stretch period.
5. The Shell team negotiating a significant gas deal in Middle East included only Europeans. The local Middle East team felt more comfortable with the American- Saudi Aramco team as it had more Middle Easteners. This was recognized in time and Shell’s team was revamped to include a few ‘local’ faces who could help break the ice and guage the local sentiments.
With issues such as these multinational organisations need to work on many cross cultural issues which impact communication internally and externally. The are typically managed via the Diversity and Inclusion agenda. In Shell, the D&I agenda includes:
D&I education offerings.
Communication processes in the profiling of success stories and the sharing of good practices. Recruitment and retention efforts that focus on tapping into the top talent across diverse constituency groups. Development and mentoring of diverse staff from across the world. Building supportive/inclusive work environments. D&I education: Shell has over 100 different nationalities in its employee population. In a global organization like Shell, people need to constantly work with people from other nationalities as part of expatriate assignments, or as part of x-country projects or as part of one’s role which may be global or regional in scope. Hence educating staff on nationality related cross cultural issues is an ongoing activity in Shell. Staff who get posted as expatriates to a foreign country are taken through cultural awareness sessions on the new country culture.
They are also sponsored to learn the local language to help assimilate better. Staff put on x-country assignments are also helped with cultural awareness sessions so that they can understand what colleagues from other countries mean by what they say and by what they don’t. Supervisors who have from different countries are also encouraged to understand the cultural differences of countries of these staff. The Crossing Cultures course in Shell is designed to help people value differences and improve team working skills.
The course aims to enable business and function staff to develop their cross cultural skills and to work more effectively, with virtual and multi cultural teams. Participants are expected to: Improve their sensitivity to others’ different needs and behaviours and adjusts own behaviours and communication style accordingly. Invites, respects and incorporates others’ different perspectives. Demonstrates a non-judgemental acceptance of different perspectives, behaviours and ways of working. Utilises cultural differences to improve outcomes.
Actively supports efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive organisation. This course consists of a structured program of face-to-face and virtual learning, combined with workplace assignments and activities, knowledge sharing and networking. The course totals 16 hours; 8 hours virtual over 4 weeks and with a 1 day face to face in week 6 of the program.