Early Careers: Developing Intercultural Competence

The UK oil and gas industry has suffered a few years of low prices and loss of jobs. However, more recently, an upswing in the oil price has brought renewed optimism to the North Sea, along with a wave of fresh recruitment.

The industry continues to offer exciting opportunities for a whole range of graduate disciplines from engineering to geologists and geophysicists, and the technical and business functions that support them.

The Challenge:  One client is a seabed-to-surface engineering, construction and services contractor. They have an industry-leading and award-winning two-year graduate training scheme. It involves on-the-job development, mentoring, personal development tools and formal training.

Their graduates come together for a global conference early in the scheme and travel from offices in the UK, Norway, USA, Brazil, France, Canada, Angola, Singapore, Nigeria and Australia.

Alternative Description
Alternative Description

Our Solution:  Our two-day programme was designed to coach the graduates in cross-cultural awareness, multi-cultural team-working and international communication skills.

The first session started in plenary with a survival exercise which saw all the graduates interacting and working together. In the exercise, their survival depended on their working together successfully as a team. The exercise also demonstrated that when the team works together effectively, they are much more likely to survive than as individuals. During the debrief, they discovered their chances of survival were greatly increased by effective communication, listening to each other, influencing and reaching agreement with their team members. This theme was developed further during the programme in the subsequent training activities.

The rest of the afternoon focused on working in remote teams and the graduates were challenged to use “Global English”. Because many native English speakers don’t speak foreign languages, they often lack understanding of the difficulties non-native speakers face when using English. In the next exercise, they wrote an email to a colleague requesting some information urgently. Once they had written their email, the graduates worked in pairs to review each other’s work against a set of criteria. These included how clearly they had explained the situation, whether they had motivated the reader or simply expressed the situation in terms only of themselves and ‘their’ needs, and the degree to which their language was direct and explicit or more ‘cushioned’. The Babel trainers explained what would be most effective in the cultures under discussion.

The focus on the second day of Babel’s programme was cross-cultural working. The graduates worked on a case-study entitled “Managing Across Cultures” which told of a challenging multi-cultural meeting led by a British manager called ‘John’. The graduates had to identify the values and beliefs which drove the behaviour of John and his colleagues in the meeting. In their analysis, they discussed John’s informal British leadership style and use of understated language; the speed at which the American participant wanted to reach a democratic decision whilst being challenged by the French executive with her need for logic and all the facts. The Babel Trainers then introduced a Model of Culture – a theoretical but practical framework for categorising cultures.

The graduates were then asked to present their own culture’s characteristics, values and beliefs; identifying what makes their own culture unique and what visitors may notice when they are visiting. This was a great opportunity for the graduates to learn from each other about the different cultures represented in the group. Fascinating and often hilarious presentations followed.

Following this, the graduates considered how people communicate in their culture. The Babel trainers asked whether communication should be frank and explicit, or diplomatic and implicit in their country. Should team members only talk when they have something relevant to say, or show warmth and interest with lots of talk? As a team member, should they explain their points in a logical sequence, using clear steps, or move from point to point implicitly, as it is obvious and already understood? In their culture, do people generally prefer the written word or oral communication? Once again, the Babel trainers made reference to the Model of Culture to offer their advice.

The final task of the day involved dividing the graduates into two teams for a negotiation to compete over ten rounds to win or lose a small pot of their own money. The teams were seated apart from each other so they couldn’t communicate in any way for most of the rounds (apart from rounds four and nine when representatives from each group were allowed to meet briefly to discuss strategy) so they had to anticipate the strategy of the other team. The exercise culminated in a final round with a collective negotiation with all team members involved.

In spite of the trainer advising them at the outset that the exercise was about trust and to “gain maximum points for the group”, the teams immediately set about trying to outsmart each other. Apart from being great fun, this exercise had some very serious messages. Firstly, it is vital when working remotely to keep in close communication with your partners (not allowed by the rules of the game), otherwise it is very easy to assume they will have bad motives, and as a result, mistrust sets in easily. Secondly, we are competitive by nature and it is easy to forget who the real competition is – in this case the umpire and not the other team. Thirdly, we need to actively build trust by being consistent; any inconsistency by the other party can easily destroy trust, and finally we should be looking to co-operate through win-win if we want to build long-term relationships, rather than win-lose which will give a short-term advantage only.

The Result:

“Each year the Babel module is rated ‘outstanding’ by our graduates. They feel really engaged and encouraged to learn and although some of them may have studied these topics at university, they have never experienced the content within such a multi-cultural group and the advice offered by top trainers. The graduates are excited to network with fellow colleagues from different offices and cultures and Babel’s programme enables us to do this perfectly”.

*Since the start of Covid-19 pandemic, this programme has been redesigned to be delivered over a series of live online sessions.  The sessions are interactive and contain ice-breakers, polls, annotating slides, quizzes, breakout room activities and group discussions.


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