We’ve all seen the adverts where the frightfully English chap puts his feet up, exposing his soles and offending the sensibilities of the local Thai people. Well, this is the real-life version: British businessmen have been meeting clients in India and – shock horror – kissing them, causing much offence in the process.
Now the UK-India Business Council has stepped in and ordered Britons to refrain from greeting people in India in this way. But MBA professors, who lead some of the most cosmopolitan cohorts in education, say that the key to multicultural cohesion is not tiptoeing around stereotypes: it’s just about being sensitive.
“We all try to point out quaint cultural differences, but that’s a bit trivial,” says Professor Arthur Francis, of Bradford School of Management. To smooth the transition of its foreign students, Bradford has produced a guide to cultural differences and how to embrace them. “What’s important is to remind ourselves that when certain behaviour seems odd to us it might just be a cultural difference and not rude. It’s just about being alive to these differences.”
But whether business school students are alive to it or not, differences can occur when highly diverse groups have to operate in the pressurised atmosphere of an MBA course. Each cohort must go through this so-called storming period, when students from different countries must understand why, and how, they must learn to work with each other.
Dr Marie Taillard, assistant professor in marketing at ESCP-EAP European School of Management is charged with sorting out the cultural differences when the MBA students form teams. She talks about the typical group, where the German woman will assume the lead, and quickly get frustrated that her female Italian colleague is always late, and her male French colleague simply wants to take her out for a drink.
“We try to explain that it’s nothing unusual to have these differences,” says Taillard. “It’s just part of working in an international business environment.” She urges her students to set down rules before beginning: that everyone will be on time, that everyone will have a voice, and that no one will leave a meeting without arranging to meet again. That’s the easy part.
“More difficult is where there are problems deciding who is the leader,” she says. “We’ll help them to choose a leader or a different model altogether, where someone takes the lead for two weeks, say. The worst case scenario is when they won’t talk, they’ve tried to ostracise someone they don’t like, and people are coming to me in tears saying they want to quit the programme altogether.”
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