Michelle Mielly – training cultural diversity in the workplace

Odyssey Intercultural

Michelle Mielly is MSc Marketing Program Director at Grenoble Graduate School of Business. She talks to Grenoble Life about her background, adapting to life in France and Odyssey Intercultural, the training consultancy she founded.

Grenoble Life: What is Odyssey Intercultural and who is it for?

Michelle Mielly: Odyssey Intercultural is a brand I created four years ago in my work as a consultant with Act’Rmc here in Grenoble. Its name reflects the long and multi-faceted journey that one experiences when working and living interculturally.

The training I have developed targets individuals, teams, and organizations wishing to acquire greater intercultural competency. They may be involved in an acculturation/expatriation process, working in a multicultural team environment, experiencing the ins and outs of a corporate merger or international joint venture, or managing any form of diversity in an organization. Any of these common situations requires intercultural competency.

GL: What are some of the dangers of poor intercultural understanding and management?

Michelle: Stated simply, failure is the biggest danger. Failure in business ventures is often attributed to incompatibilities in strategy, business models, operational technicalities, or management styles. However, when one looks at some of the most spectacular failures in international business, the hidden dimension of culture is often the origin.

The examples are multiple: Disney’s implantation strategy in France and in Hong Kong, the Daimler-Chrysler merger, Lucent-Alcatel’s missed mission, Schneider Electric’s difficulties with a number of its foreign subsidiaries, and many more. Some of these examples illustrate that cultural issues create great obstacles, but the good news is that you can overcome them with hard work and the investment of time.

Another danger is missed opportunities. Creating a bad first impression takes a long time to correct, so it’s better to go into international business with an open mind and conscientious preparation. Many opportunities are lost due to individual cultural differences that inhibited the establishment of a long lasting and productive relationship.

When people don’t feel respected, if they perceive a lack of interest on the part of the other, if they lack the fundamental trust at the foundations of the relationship, or if they think they are being stereotyped negatively, they go into defensive mode. Most of the time they actually start behaving in ways that may confirm the other’s stereotypes!

It must be stressed that in speaking of cultural differences in the corporate context, we are often talking about corporate, and not national or regional cultures. There are dozens of examples of mergers or acquisitions between the same national cultures, but the corporate cultures involved were profoundly imprinted and elusive to change.

GL: Odyssey Intercultural specializes in European-North American relations. Could you elaborate on how these relations can be complicated or sensitive and why Grenoble in particular might require such a service?

Michelle: Cultural differences exist between any two cultures: just looking at Western Europe’s dazzling diversity is overwhelming! Statistically speaking along national cultural dimensions, there are much greater differences between France and Denmark for example than there are between France and the US.

So why train people to work better with North Americans (Canadians and US)? Precisely because there is an incorrect perception, due to excessive and sustained commercial and popular culture exposure, that these cultures are familiar, superficial, and that there is not much more to know about them.

Upon closer examination, however, one finds differences of deep and significant import. It is one thing to watch American sitcoms, eat at McDonald’s, study the English language, visit Toronto or the Grand Canyon for two weeks. It is absolutely another to work, communicate, and negotiate with North Americans on a daily basis.

One example: the perception of time. First, is time a disposable resource? What is an acceptable turnaround time in responding to an email (reactivity levels)? What is the best way to organize time allocation for a project, or just for a meeting? How does one divide one’s personal time from professional time and is this necessary? Should people be available during vacation periods? How much vacation is necessary? What are the expected working hours in companies?

Grenoble’s high tech economy provides a stunning example of how globalization has simultaneously simplified and complicated our work environment. And this environment has an impact on our personal lives as well (increased travel, the need to work odd hours to accommodate conf calls internationally, etc.).

Managers now have teams working 24/7 on their global projects, so deep integration through collaborative technology is a reality today. An industrial project, for example, involves teams in multiple time zones with multiple local environments that contrast sharply from one site to another.

While technically we have the means to run long and short term projects across the globe, on a personal individual level, we often simply do not have the intercultural tools at our disposal to sustainably manage the complexity of the different cultural realities that each site and international counterpart presents throughout the project lifetime.

Partnerships in many forms between Grenoble-based organizations and North American organizations are extremely common and new ones are forming constantly. Due to the perceived similarity of our cultures, most of my clients do not see a need for my services at the start of the project, but usually begin to perceive the need once the challenges have begun to appear.

GL: Why and how did you set it up?

Michelle: I set up this activity to be able to develop trainings that had begun to be requested by local companies to whom I had been referred. As in any activity, a couple of companies ‘took a chance’ with me and offered me a first opportunity to develop a training on French-American intercultural communication.

Thanks to their confidence, I was able to get my grounding in this fascinating field and to develop and test my trainings on people directly working in the corporate environment. My work with people on both the French and American sites of these organizations has helped me see the importance of working with people on both sides of the fence.

GL: Tell us a little about your background

Michelle: Ethnographically speaking I fully identify myself as a southerner: born and raised in Texas to parents from Louisiana and Oklahoma. I grew up in a small town outside of Houston, where I spent a great deal of my time riding my horses and learning the value of simplicity and the happiness of being outdoors.

I started learning French when I was about 15 and then switched from the rodeo circuit to the international summer exchange circuit. I worked my way through undergraduate studies, three graduate programs including Pennsylvania State U and Harvard, and in between got some great experience working in the field.

Trained in linguistics, foreign language pedagogy, intercultural studies and anthropology, I’m politically progressive but culturally conservative. I am proud of my roots and the values I received from them and encourage my students and clients to never lose sight of those values, no matter how much adaptation they must do internationally.

GL: You’ve also worked in Africa and Central America, can you tell us a little about this and how it influenced your thinking.

Michelle: In my 20s I spent a lot of my time backpacking—Europe, Latin America, SE Asia, Africa. Studying comparative literature with a focus on contemporary Central American writers led me to Costa Rica where I had an exceptional experience. I wrote for the local English speaking paper in San José, translated the poetry of Ana Istaru, and had the chance to manage an ecotourism outfitter in the Northwestern pacific region of Guanacaste with 14 employees. This experience made it clear to me that development work was for me.

When I went on to study for the Ph.D. at Harvard, I focused on Francophone African civilizations with a focus on modern day cultural producers and how they contribute to economic and cultural development. I got to live and work with the extraordinary artist Werewere Liking in the Ki Yi Village, Ivory Coast.

These experiences involved huge amounts of negotiation, adaptation, and exhausting reappraisals of my priorities. I initiated as a part of my doctoral thesis for example a US tour of seven African artists in the US in 2004 involving 10 universities across the US, from New York all the way to Ohio.

I began to recognize that I had a certain ease in working with very different cultures and in coordinating among diverse partners in complex situations, constantly negotiating for the best compromise for all. I had in fact through these experiences developed my own working philosophy and own tools, but not until my work in intercultural management had I actually started thinking about them in terms of knowledge transmission.

GL: Concerning European-North American relations – as I’m British, where do I fit in? Do your clients ask for intercultural training on British working and cultural habits? How are we often perceived by others (wrongly or rightly)?

Michelle: Well, you and I have a lot in common in terms of cultural heritage. The US could be considered to simply be the most successful colony of the Commonwealth! And yes, I have actually been asked for help in companies working with the British, but I always involve a British colleague or graduate student in order to legitimize my work on that culture, to provide the most authentic training possible.

In terms of perceptions, the French have the perception that the British are not as trustworthy as the Americans. I think both cultures (French and English) perceive the other as ‘perfidious’, as traditionally both sides of the Channel have portrayed the other as capable of treason. Idiomatic expressions such as filer à l’anglais or ‘to take French leave’ illustrate the mistrust. And who can blame either? There is a lot of water under that bridge of collective memory.

Another perception that the French have is that the British have a more complex communication style with more ‘code’ and irony. And that is one that I fully agree with!

GL: What are some of the difficulties you have faced adapting to life in France and how have you overcome them?

Michelle: In terms of my greatest difficulties to adapting to France in particular, I think most of them were due to differing communication styles and my own unrealistic expectations. These created great obstacles for me here, and it took me some time to have close French friends.

I had learned from my southern American upbringing and values, what we call southern gentility, that there are certain things you just cannot do, for example:

It is impolite to confront or challenge others’ ideas in public, particularly if you do not know the person well. It is impolite to say provocative things about another country or civilization in front of the person representing that country. It is not kind to interrupt someone when they are speaking. It is not good manners to correct another person’s accent or pronunciation if they are learning your language. Finally, outside of communication issues, it is extremely rude to jump in front of someone in a line (or a queue as you say in the UK).

I progressively discovered to my astonishment that all of these behaviors were common in France, part of the way people operate here generally. It is perfectly fine to criticize others in order to spark a debate or discussion, to see whether you are capable of holding your own when it comes to rhetorical skills (of which the French have plenty).

It’s part of their philosophical heritage to critique other civilizations and to look upon the outside world as less attractive than France, but they actually want you to convince them otherwise. That’s why they provoke heated discussions which are in no way unfriendly. A sign of a strong relationship between two people here is to be able to argue heatedly and passionately with each other, often in public.

Frequent interruptions in France are normal and common in discussions, formal and informal. Correcting someone’s French is the only way to help that person avoid sounding ridiculous to others, and having someone else correct them later.

Last but not least, if you do not have a strong territorial strategy for defending your place in a queue, people will simply cut in front of you. It was me who needed to adapt my behaviors and expectations to this new environment, to shift from passive to active mode.

GL: Could you give Grenoble Life readers some tips on adapting to life in France?

Michelle: I think the above description could suffice: it’s all about changing your expectations and recognizing your cultural limitations in order to move on. If French people seem strange, rude, or complicated to you, they may be thinking the exact thing of you! You have to be a lot more flexible in another country than you are at home, you have to tolerate a lot more discomfort and sense of displacement.

It can really be frustrating at times and often discouraging. The movement from one place to another, literally translatio, requires a self-reflexive capacity for adapting to the new environment and to those with whom you are in contact. Yet more important than any of this is having a strong dose of empathy. In other words, forcing oneself into the uneasy position of the other, and trying at all times to imagine things from their perspective.

See www.odysseyintercultural.com for more info.

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