By Gisele Marcus, Professor of Practice-Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Olin Business School-Washington University in St. Louis
In today’s interconnected world, international banking is reaching further than ever before. The rapid expansion of global financial markets has necessitated close collaboration across cultures. Banking professionals from various backgrounds work together to ensure smooth and efficient financial operations. Understanding and embracing cultural diversity have become critical skills for success in the international banking industry. This article explores leading practices for working across different cultures in international banking and provides insights into how cultural intelligence drives better outcomes in this increasingly complex and diverse industry.
The importance of cultural awareness and competence
Before delving into specific strategies, it is crucial to understand the significance of and differences between cultural awareness and cultural competence. Cultural awareness refers to recognizing and acknowledging the existence of cultural differences, while cultural competence involves developing the skills, knowledge and attitudes necessary to interact effectively with individuals from diverse backgrounds.
International banking, characterized by its global reach and diverse clientele, thrives on trust and effective communication. Building and maintaining trust in the financial industry is a delicate art, often significantly influenced by cultural factors. The ability to work effectively across different cultures has become a paramount skill for professionals in this field, and here are some key reasons why:
- Client relations: International banks serve clients from diverse backgrounds, incorporating different countries, languages and customs. Understanding and respecting the cultural nuances of these clients can lead to better client relationships and trust.
- Global collaboration: International banking often involves cross-border collaboration between colleagues and teams worldwide. Effective communication and collaboration are critical and are enhanced when individuals understand and appreciate each other’s cultures.
- Risk mitigation: Misunderstandings and misinterpretations due to cultural differences can lead to financial losses, compliance issues and legal disputes. Being culturally competent can help mitigate these risks.
- Competitive advantage: Banks that excel in understanding and working with diverse cultures can gain a competitive edge, attract more clients and retain talented employees who appreciate an inclusive and culturally sensitive workplace.
- Regulatory compliance: Many countries have stringent regulations regarding cross-border financial transactions. Understanding the cultural context in which these regulations operate is vital for compliance and risk management.
Cultural competence is a fundamental asset for international banking professionals, enabling them to:
- Build trust and rapport with clients, colleagues and partners;
- Navigate complex international regulations and protocols;
- Adapt to different communication styles and negotiation strategies;
- Mitigate cultural misunderstandings and conflicts.
To cultivate cultural competence, it’s important to start with self-awareness. Professionals should reflect on their own cultural biases and assumptions, as these can affect interactions with colleagues and clients from different backgrounds.
An organizational approach to competence in this area is a concept called culturally dynamic partnerships. An article titled “Cultural Competence and Beyond: Working Across Cultures in Culturally Dynamic Partnerships” by Narayan Gopalkrishnan, published in the International Journal of Community and Social Development of the International Consortium for Social Development Asia-Pacific Branch (ICSDAP) in 20191, denotes the practice as a “collaborative approach to working across cultures in a culturally safe environment; where all stakeholders interact in mutual learning relationships and develop the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to work in equitable partnerships across dynamic and diverse cultures”. In such an environment, “it is about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and a shared experience, of learning together with dignity and truly listening”, according to Robyn Williams in his research, “Cultural safety—what does it mean for our work practice?”, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in 19992.
Leading practices for working across different cultures
To excel in international banking, professionals should adopt leading practices for working across different cultures. The following strategies are designed to help international banking professionals enhance their cultural competencies and navigate cross-cultural situations with ease.
Cultural awareness and education
The first step in working across different cultures is understanding them. Encourage your employees to engage in cultural awareness and education programs. These may include workshops, seminars or online courses that help individuals grasp the basics of various cultures and their values, traditions and communication styles. The goal is to break down stereotypes and promote open-mindedness.
Cultural education should encompass more than just language and etiquette; it should also delve into deeper cultural norms, business practices and expectations. For instance, knowing that gift-giving is customary in many Asian cultures can prevent misunderstandings and ensure compliance with anti-bribery laws.
Cross-cultural communication skills
Effective communication is essential in any business environment. In the global work environment, effective communication may be hindered by language and cultural barriers. Language proficiency is invaluable. Learning a client’s language, or at least key phrases, can go a long way in building trust and rapport. This investment can lead to long-term client relationships and improved business outcomes.
In addition to language skills, banking professionals should develop cross-cultural communication skills. These skills include active listening, adaptability and empathy. Understanding that communication styles can vary widely, from direct and explicit to indirect and implicit, helps one navigate the nuances of global interactions. A great resource I found on this topic (while leading a global business) is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Counties by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway3. This book offers cultural overviews and tips for doing business in various countries.
Cultural intelligence (CQ)
Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the ability to function effectively in culturally diverse settings. It goes beyond cultural awareness by emphasizing the ability to adapt, learn and excel in unfamiliar cultural contexts. It involves not just understanding other cultures but also adapting one’s behaviors and communication styles to bridge cultural gaps across more than 100 countries. Banks can consider offering CQ training to their employees, as it can significantly enhance their abilities to work effectively across cultures. To enrich your understanding, visit the Cultural Intelligence Center (CQ) website4.
CQ comprises four dimensions:
- CQ drive: The motivation to learn about and adapt to different cultures;
- CQ knowledge: The understanding of the cultural norms, values and practices of other cultures;
- CQ strategy: The ability to plan and adapt one’s behavior for effective cross-cultural interactions;
- CQ action: The capability to interact with people from diverse backgrounds in a way that builds rapport and trust.
Cultivating CQ among employees can lead to more meaningful cross-cultural relationships and, in turn, improved financial outcomes.
According to Anjan Thakor in his paper “Corporate Culture in Banking”5, “If two banks with disparate cultures merger, there will be greater disagreement over decision making and higher agency costs than in either bank before the merger.” CQ in organizations can be the difference-maker in terms of results.
Respect and open-mindedness
It is crucial for individuals working in international banking to approach each cultural interaction with respect and open minds. This means valuing the perspectives and customs of other cultures, even if they differ from one’s own. It also involves being willing to learn from others and adapting to their ways of doing business.
Encourage employees to refrain from making hasty judgments or generalizations based on cultural differences. Instead, they should focus on understanding the contexts and backgrounds of those differences, recognizing that what might seem unusual in one culture is completely normal in another.
Encourage employees to develop relationships with culturally different individuals to ensure a safe space for questions and dialogue related to cultural competence.
Inclusivity and diversity initiatives
Banking institutions should promote inclusivity within their organizations. This involves actively hiring and promoting individuals from diverse backgrounds and creating inclusive workplace cultures that respect and celebrate these differences.
Inclusivity initiatives can include establishing employee resource groups (ERGs) that cater to specific cultural or affinity groups, fostering a culture of respect and appreciation for diverse perspectives, and providing mentorship and leadership-development programs that encourage professionals from various cultural backgrounds to excel within the organization.
Cultural sensitivity in products and services
International banks should be attuned to the cultural nuances of their client bases and adapt their products and services accordingly. This may involve offering financial products tailored to various cultural groups’ specific needs and preferences or ensuring that marketing materials are culturally sensitive.
Furthermore, banks should consider the impacts of cultural differences on risk management and compliance. What may be seen as a normal business practice in one culture might raise red flags in another. Therefore, due diligence and risk-assessment processes should be culturally informed.
Banks should not assume that a product suitable for one culture is suited to another. For example, a study assessed factors influencing or hindering the intention to use mobile banking among Lebanese and British consumers. The results showed that habit, perceived security, perceived privacy and trust were factors for both consumer types. Performance expectancy was a significant predictor in Lebanon but not England, whereas price value was significant in England but not Lebanon. More details regarding such cultural nuances from this survey conducted by Mohamed Merhi, Kate Hone and Ali Tarhini can be found in the study titled “A Cross-cultural study of the intention to use mobile banking between Lebanese and British consumers” in Technology in Society6.
Building cross-cultural teams within an organization can be highly beneficial. These teams bring together individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences to tackle complex problems and serve clients effectively. A mix of cultures can lead to creative solutions and better decision-making.
It’s important to ensure that cross-cultural teams are well managed and that each member clearly understands his or her roles and responsibilities. Communication within these teams should be transparent and respectful, accounting for cultural differences.
Conflicts are bound to arise in any workplace, and when working across cultures, they can take on a unique flavor. “It’s human nature to have conflict and human nature to avoid it. But if we sweep it under the rug, the issue doesn’t go away,” proclaimed Joe Sullivan, Market Insights’ chief executive officer, in an article in The Financial Brand7. The same article denotes that “workplace conflict is becoming more common across all industries. Those who report dealing with conflict in their jobs often, very often, or all the time, increased to 35% in an August 2022 study from The Myers-Briggs Company, compared with 29% in its’ previous study on the subject in 2009”. This is due to having enhanced representations of an array of diversity dimensions, including culture, in the workplace. Therefore, it’s key for professionals in international banking to develop effective conflict-resolution skills that are sensitive to cultural differences.
Conflict resolution may involve seeking mediation, understanding the underlying causes of disputes and striving for win-win solutions. Training in cultural conflict resolution can benefit employees who regularly work with clients or colleagues from diverse backgrounds.
Regular feedback and learning
Finally, continuous improvement is key to developing cultural competence. Encourage employees to seek feedback from clients and colleagues about their cultural interactions. Learning from these experiences and actively seeking to improve cultural competency can be instrumental in personal and professional growth. Cultural Competency Consultancy8 and National Center for Cultural Competence9 are a couple of consultancies that excel in this work.
In international banking, working across different cultures is both a challenge and an opportunity. Cultural competence, effective communication, relationship building and navigating cross-cultural dialogues are all vital skills for success in this field. By embracing these best practices, international banking professionals can foster trust, collaboration and sustainable business relationships across borders. Furthermore, staying attuned to cultural shifts and regulatory changes while continually enhancing cultural intelligence and adaptability will ensure a competitive edge in the global financial industry. In the end, cultural diversity can be a source of strength and innovation when handled with sensitivity and skill, allowing international banking professionals to thrive in an interconnected world.
1 International Consortium for Social Development Asia-Pacific Branch/International Journal of Community and Social Development: “Cultural Competence and Beyond: Working Across Cultures in Culturally Dynamic Partnerships,” Narayan Gopalkrishnan, February 13, 2019, Volume 1, Issue 1.
2 Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health: “Cultural safety — what does it mean for our work practice?”, Robyn Williams, April 1999, Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 213-214.
3 Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries, Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway, July 24, 2006, Adams Media.
4 Cultural Intelligence Center (CQ): “About Cultural Intelligence.”
5 ECGI and Washington University in St. Louis: “Corporate Culture in Banking,” Anjan V. Thakor, February 15, 2015.
6 Technology in Society: “A Cross-cultural study of the intention to use mobile banking between Lebanese and British consumers: Extending UTAUT2 with security, privacy and trust,” Mohamed Merhi, Kate Hone and Ali Tarhini, November 2019, Volume 59, 101151.
7The Financial Brand: “Conflict Resolution: A Banking Expert on Causes and Cures,” Jennifer Robison.
8 Cultural Competency Consulting: “Our Commitment.”