28 July 2020

Are you Culture Savvy? The Importance of Soft Skills in Adapting to the “New Normal”

Learnlight Expert Series



How can cultural skills and soft skills help people and organizations in adapting to the “new normal”? Why is it important to understand another culture’s values, beliefs and business customs when interacting in an entirely virtual environment? Louis Lima, Head of Skills Performance and Recruitment at Learnlight, shares his thoughts.

“Culture-savvy” refers to the ability to recognize cultural factors that influence people’s thoughts and behaviours and to use this information in order to modify our approach when interacting with others.  As we increase our exposure to virtual environments, we are more likely to interact with a multicultural workforce. Therefore, professionals need to be constantly building their intercultural competencies, and it starts with an awareness of our own cultural influences. Forbes recently updated their list of  The Skills You Need to Succeed in 2020, to include cultural awareness and sensitivity.

These skills are not transformational but developmental in nature. They take time and experience to improve. Louis Lima shares a recent learning experience: “I was on a team project with a colleague from the Netherlands who had suggested making all decisions by consensus – a typical Dutch approach to decision-making. Afterwards, I asked her why she had suggested this approach when the “best” way was to round up all suggestions and have one of us make the decision – a typical American-based approach tied to speed, which I probably mastered in my decades working in the USA. Suddenly I realized how ethnocentric I had been and quickly apologized. It reminded me that culture-savvy is something we constantly need to apply.”

There are many ways to exercise our culture-savvy skills. One is through style-switching, which is the capacity to adapt our approach to be in line with the preferred style of those we interact with. For example, you tend to show interest in a conversation by interrupting someone while they are talking – a common approach in many countries, and you are in a meeting with a colleague who takes a long time to formulate thoughts and positions on a given topic. In this case, you might want to avoid interrupting, be patient and wait until your colleague has finished speaking.

Further reading

The ability to find synergistic solutions is another key intercultural skill, and it refers to finding a tailored approach that not only satisfies both parties but even results in a richer solution. For example, if you are accustomed to a highly task-oriented environment that adheres strictly to deadlines and schedules but suddenly find yourself working in a heavily relationship-based environment, chances are you might struggle meeting deadlines at times. Providing a time range to meet a deadline rather than a fixed point in time, could be an optimal solution. In this case, flexibility is critical when it comes to ensuring that both parties fulfil their needs and optimize performance. There are other approaches in the culture-savvy arsenal, such as being able to withhold judgement or learning how culture influences our behaviour. “It is important to keep our culture-savvy skills sharp and in practice. It’s not something we have but something we do.” says Louis Lima.

Stepping out of our cultural bubble

Cultural awareness is very critical, particularly when we must interact with people from different cultures thru virtual work practices.

Louis Lima states that people tend to live in a bubble: “That is a metaphor of our reality of the world – and in this bubble, we think our thoughts, assumptions and perceptions are original to ourselves. Cultural awareness is like stepping outside this bubble and realizing that to a certain extent, our cultural upbringing influences the way we think and act”. This is pre-requisite for accepting that other people’s thoughts and behaviours are equally valid as our own because they have equally been influenced by their own cultural upbringing.

Sometimes cultural differences are simple to handle, like food or language. Others, such as belief systems, require a certain level of sensitivity.  “If you are someone who strongly associates directness with sincerity, then it might be difficult for you to operate in high-context cultures where reading in-between –the lines is a normal part of their communication approach” says Louis Lima. Topics surrounding hygiene or child-rearing practices can also hit a chord and be difficult to reconcile with. It is therefore essential that we reflect on and get present to how culture has influenced us in order to overcome these challenges and become truly open to different ways of perceiving the world.

Cultural awareness in an age of digital transformation

Digital transformation is defined as the process of using digital technologies to create new – or modify existing – business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. As organizations and their employees navigate through this process, being open-minded and accepting change will help both managers and staff better adapt to new processes and cultures. The 2020 pandemic has catapulted companies into the virtual world, many of them had to quickly adopt to new virtual tools for meetings, optimized workflows, and processes. Additionally, virtually connecting with colleagues has forced people to be more empathic, due to employees being put in challenging positions in work due to COVID-19.

With the acceleration of virtual working, you will see an even bigger multicultural virtual workforce – so I expect to see more intensive and practical global mindset training.” says Louis Lima. Managers who were accustomed to managing teams face-to-face must now do so virtually and acquire new soft skills to adapt to the new normal. “Being a manager is a very privileged position because it provides you with a unique opportunity to affect the lives of those you manage in a meaningful way. It’s essential you take the time and make the effort to build on your soft-skills and be the best manager you can be.”

Soft skills – a catalyst for reflection

“To be open to other cultures you are going to have change with you all the time, so you have to be comfortable with it” says Louis Lima.

Soft skills are invaluable during times of change – and in this context, individuals and companies are required to reinvent themselves to some extent. For employees, it is an opportunity to stop and reflect on what is needed. On platforms such as LinkedIn, there is an obvious trend of people pursuing new certifications in order to enhance their expertise and emerge from this global crisis stronger.

Organizations suddenly might have to contend with a workforce that is more stressed or in need of added skillsets. “At Learnlight, we are seeing more client requests for soft skills training related to this change such as Communicating in a Time or Crisis, or Managing Change in a Time of Uncertainty, says Louis Lima. “Critical thinking skills are always valuable to have in our arsenal, but even more now in times of constant change – so that the decisions we are making in life have a solid foundational logic and are not purely out of emotion.” Louis continues, “I think the new normal is a world of continuous uncertainty, and we need the skills and mindset to not just come to terms with it but embrace it altogether.

soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

At organization level we are seeing companies invest in soft skills trainings to help their employees upskill, stay motivated and boost productivity at work. On an individual basis, there is an upward trend of people taking the opportunity to learn soft skills through virtual training. Soft skills and cultural awareness are essential for businesses in order to succesfully navigate considerable change. Investing in these skills now means e building a resilient and flexible workforce that is culturally attuned and more likely to be effective regardless of what the future holds.

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