Achieving Successful Buy-in with Multicultural Change

In today’s modern business environment navigating an organization’s culture to implement change is always a challenge. Further complicating the challenge of change is the development of today’s global economy. Previously a culture of change required a working knowledge of the organization’s culture, today this is more often times than not only half the battle. In order to be a successful agent of change it is necessary to understand an organization’s culture and its various international cultures as well.

In today’s environment an organization may have multiple entities representing multiple international cultures. Each entity will undoubtedly have it’s own culture bringing with it a “normal” business state that may be slightly different or greatly different from the other entities that make up the organization. This creates a situation where one change strategy does not fit all. In order to successfully implement change across an organization change should be tailored to each situation.

Understanding the culture necessary for change may require taking time to understand the various cultural differences around the decision making process within the organization. The first task should be to speak with members of the team and understand how proposals should be presented to the multicultural team. What is the organization’s acceptable norm? Should you present to a single member of the executive team as culture dictates the proposal needs a champion to succeed within the organization? Does the Executive Committee make the decisions with all decision making power condensed into one level within the organization? Or is a hierarchical decision making structure used within the organization’s culture requiring proposals be presented to operation management, then upper management, and finally to the executive level? If this is the case and buy-in from one of the lower levels is not received experience may show that your proposal can die before the executive’s ever hear it as the lack of buy-in from lower levels of management may be culturally perceived as a red flag against the project bringing it to an end before it starts. Understanding these subtle differences often times directly influence success or failure of a new initiative.

Once you understand how to garner acceptance of an idea, it is equally important to understand how rejection is communicated and what cultural norms to look for. Early in my career I was working within an organization headquartered in Asia. I was assigned a project working with several engineers from the organization’s Asian headquarters. After three months of effort zero progress had been made. Time and time again I was told “I have a lot going on right now, but we will work on this later”. The lack of progress quickly became frustrating for my boss, the engineers I worked with, and myself. Eventually I realized that telling a coworker “No” was considered rude and thus a culturally unacceptable practice for the engineering staff. We will “work on it later” and never getting to it was their way of saying “No” without being offensive. Unfortunately no one told me about this cultural difference in how to say “No”, leaving me to decipher it on my own. Once I realized this, the project was changed and progress was finally made. Knowing how one culture communicates disagreement can be just as important as understanding what is needed to gain acceptance.

For those attempting to navigate international cultures within an organization many find it useful to seek out guidance before hand. Often times seeking a member of the local team that has been through a similar experience to ask for advice and to act as a Mentor will often times increase the likelihood of success. Alternately you may decide to seek the advice of a member of the international team, asking them to act as a type of Ambassador to assist you in understanding the international culture and how best to propose change to the organization. These Mentor and Ambassador relationships can help you have both short term and long term success regardless of the type of change you are proposing.

Unfortunately there is no one size fits all rulebook for successful Buy-in to change. The steps discussed in Achieving Management Buy-in to Change may only be your first step towards successful change. The following points of emphasis will help to ensure your change ideas get off to a good start when interacting with multicultural entities within an organization:

  • Develop an Understanding of cultural norms for proposing change. What steps are needed for properly achieving buy-in?
  • Develop an Understanding for how change acceptance is communicated and achieved.
  • Develop and understanding for how disagreement and rejection is culturally communicated.
  • Seek out a Mentor, Ambassador, or both to assist in navigating the intricacies of the various cultures you are working with.

Navigating the intricacies with an organization’s culture, international cultures, and departmental cultures can make change difficult but not impossible. However, ignoring these cultural cues often times can guarantee failure before you ever begin and before you are even aware you failed.

About the Author:
Mark Townsend is a Senior Business Analyst with OneSpring LLC ( in Atlanta Georgia. Mark has over 15 years of experience in Process Design, Business Analysis, Product Development, and System Implementation.

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