Secrets of intercultural competence

An expert interview with tips to create successful global cooperations

Given today´s multicultural workforce, it is crucial to open the dialogue on intercultural nuances. Global entrepreneurs can only operate in a sustainable manner, if they are able to recognize and correctly interpret the influence of culture on business. Raising awareness of culture-bound attitudes marks an important starting point towards effective management of intercultural encounters.

We had the pleasure of talking to Professor Dr Christoph Barmeyer about intercultural management. Mr. Barmeyer holds the Chair of Intercultural Communication at the University of Passau and is an expert in intercultural organisational research. Furthermore, he advises companies in a solution-oriented manner on this topic. connects development cooperation projects with companies worldwide. Often people from very diverse cultures backgrounds work together in these global partnerships. It comes as no surprise that intercultural management is particularly relevant in this context. Therefore, we would like to find out how such cooperations can be shaped in the most successful and sustainable way possible. Prof. Barmeyer, you regularly advise companies on intercultural management and learning. What exactly does intercultural competence refer to?

Professor Barmeyer: Every person embodies one or more cultures, which means that we are shaped by certain cultural practices and values. Within our own cultural context, we are usually successful in deploying these norms and patterns. However, when we leave this environment or meet people from other civilizations, our proven assumptions and behaviours may no longer work. This can lead to misunderstandings or even conflicts. This is exactly where intercultural competence comes into play: How can I adapt my attitude to achieve my goals and objectives in intercultural contexts? And how does a person who is interculturally competent behave?

Barmeyer: Interculturally competent people know that they may need to adapt in order to stay effective in a multicultural environment. However, this does not only refer to their own success. These people make sure that all parties are treated equally and feel comfortable. This is particularly important for sustainable intercultural relations. Ideally, they also possess a basic knowledge of the foreign culture and knowledge of the national language. Are there certain traits or characteristics that individuals with a high degree of intercultural competence possess?

Barmeyer: Curiosity, openness and empathy are crucial. I can only be interculturally successful if I am able to put myself in the position of my interlocutor. A good portion of flexibility and self-reflection are also necessary to deal with unfamiliar situations. And one of the most important qualities for me is: humour. If I manage to laugh at myself, then I can handle tense situations with a certain distance. You have spent several years researching and teaching (Ecole de Management / Université Strasbourg) in France. Were there any cultural habits that you first had to adapt to?

Barmeyer: Yes, quite a few! For example, in German culture it's impolite to interrupt people when they're talking. In France it's quite the opposite: an interesting dialogue is one that is constantly interrupted. Although I knew that in French culture this is a sign of attention and commitment, I was still irritated. I really had to make an effort to carry on talking [laughs]. These were lessons that I had to experience and reflect on first-hand. It is precisely on the basis of these intercultural experiences that we learn and thrive. Now I would like to know what could be some ways to develop intercultural competence?

Barmeyer: In the beginning it can be helpful to acquaint oneself with relevant literature. Reliable sources tell you an enormous amount about a country, its history, society and culture. A next step would be to participate in an intercultural training or coaching. Here, however, it should be ensured that the providers are certified professionals. That sounds very promising. And to what extent is intercultural competence also relevant for entrepreneurs?

Barmeyer: It is decisive. This already starts with leadership, because Brazilian employees are used to a completely different leadership style than their Chinese colleagues. This also applies within Europe: If a German manager delegates something and does not get back to you afterwards, that is a positive sign. The employee feels confirmed in his personal responsibility. In France, the opposite applies: If you do not hear from your superior anymore, the project is no longer relevant. Does this mean that intercultural competence is vital for the international success of a company?

Barmeyer: In a way it certainly is, because intercultural sensitivity is also critical for pricing, marketing or negotiations. In an international context, a lack of intercultural competence can quickly affect the success of a department or the company as a whole. It has been proven that numerous cooperations, mergers and acquisitions have failed due to insufficient intercultural management. However, cultural differences do not necessarily have to lead to problems or conflicts. On the contrary, a multicultural team can also be a great enrichment and create powerful synergies. Could you share an example?

Barmeyer: In my opinion, the best example is definitely ARTE, the television channel. Real creativity can only emerge from contrasts. ARTE is a wonderful illustration of the synergetic potential of Franco-German cooperation. initiates partnerships between companies and development cooperation projects. Often the first meeting and subsequent negotiations take place virtually. What should be particularly considered in digital meetings?

Barmeyer: The most important thing is to build trust - also online. That implies talking for a few minutes not only about professional topics, but also personal ones: From which background does my interlocutor come from? What motivates her/him? What dreams does she/he pursue? It is essential to consciously take time to build trust. This is fundamental. Suppose an entrepreneur is at the beginning of the internationalisation process. What should she/he take into account?

Barmeyer: Globally active business professionals should be aware of the influence of culture. They should actively question: "How do my goals, products, services and also my corporate culture fit to the target country? If necessary, the products or even the price must be adapted accordingly. What else should be kept in mind?

Barmeyer: Based on my personal experience, it is extremely helpful to clarify expectations. Every person has quite different requirements of quality, processes or leadership behaviour. If we do not explicitly communicate these needs, it can lead to misunderstandings or frustration. It is therefore worthwhile to align these expectations in advance. What piece of advice would you give to entrepreneurs before meeting with foreign business partners?

Barmeyer: Those who want to be well prepared should acquire both professional as well as (inter)cultural knowledge. They should possess a basic understanding of the cultural context: What history has the country gone through? How does the political system work? What are some prevailing values and norms? What does the corporate culture of the potential partner company look like? Especially the experiences of expatriates is very valuable for this. An intensive exchange of knowledge through dialogue should therefore take place. Dear Mr Barmeyer, thank you very much for this enlightening interview. I am sure that our readers have gained valuable insights and knowledge.

Professor Dr Christoph Barmeyer holds the Chair of Intercultural Communication at the University of Passau (Germany) and has published numerous articles and monographs works on interculturalism and intercultural competence development. If you would like to learn more about intercultural management and intercultural competence, we recommend his latest publication "Konstruktives Interkulturelles Management". is a platform of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, which initiates partnerships between the private sector and development cooperation projects. Since GIZ offers its employees intercultural training with experienced coaches, our colleagues are well prepared for collaboration in a truly global context.

© cover picture: Ulrike Haupt

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