An interculturalist in the coronvirus response team
Apr 14, 2020 · by Richard Farkas
In the 2020 coronavirus crisis, the impact of the intercultural profession on the crisis response has been indirect. Some of the best-prepared government bodies, NGOs and businesses have been adapting to the new situation equipped with cultural intelligence developed by intercultural professionals over the preceding years.
It’s been very satisfying to see interculturalists switch into supporting individuals and organisations through this new crisis situation. But to my knowledge, no interculturalist or institution from the intercultural field has yet been called into service to work directly with strategic national- or supranational policy-makers in a covid-19 crisis response team. The pandemic requires a team of all the talents: epidemiology, medicine, social policy, economics, communications, security, logistics and project management, analytics and risk, and more.
What contribution might an interculturalist bring to a top coronavirus crisis response team?
Effective interaction between bi-lateral and multi-lateral international partners
Even while borders are closing, now more than ever it’s important that countries collaborate effectively in research, procurement, securing of supply chains, repatriation, diplomacy, and global initiatives, such financial stimulus and aid, oil and medicines.
Interculturalists specialise in setting up ways of working and communicating which maximise the input of all parties and minimise misunderstandings.
Localisation of global programmes
In order for a global initiative to succeed, its advocates must abandon any goal of uniform, consistent implementation. In a diverse world where geography, culture, resources, climate, logistics vary so much, teams delivering global programmes require sensitivity to local contexts.
We are facing a pandemic in the sense that the virus respects no borders and seems to impact all humanity in the same way. The WHO rightly declared covid-19 a pandemic. However, on the ground we are in fact facing a series of local and regional epidemics which are rolling out very differently in different contexts.
Interculturalists are expert in adapting global programmes to local cultures. Guidance from the WHO, from a business’s head office, from a research team working on the global response may need heavy interpretation for the local context, in order to have its intended impact.
Teams, families, organisations and individuals are experiencing stress, fear and disorientation. Many feel their world has shrunk or changed, that they must navigate new rules, new etiquette and new expectations. They must give up some freedoms and take new responsibilities. It’s a familiar situation for those who work in global mobility, coaching and strategic change programmes.
Interculturalists are able to identify common sources of stress, to reframe and mitigate the negative emotions and to develop the skills and coping mechanisms required for sustained periods of uncertainty.
To keep the people safe while keeping the wheels of business, government and public services turning, we need to use social distancing at work, avoid unnecessary travel and enable employees to work from home.
The intercultural field has many specialists in virtual collaboration, forming and leading distributed teams. The normal challenges of working across cultures can be amplified when working remotely, even if those challenges are sometimes less visible at first.
Taboos and moral choices
The coronavirus crisis has had a unifying effect among many people, bringing together communities in national and international efforts, and creating high levels of team spirit among frontline workers. But we have also seen blame, suspicion, exclusion, diversion and conflicts of interest between people and nations. The pandemic raises big questions almost daily around intergenerational fairness, adaptation of religious and cultural practices, competition for resources, transparency, equitable treatment of communities within larger populations, personal hygiene and acts of charity, to name just a few.
Interculturalists represent a deep resource of skill and knowledge in conflict resolution. The profession also helps individuals and organisations step outside of their comfort zone, away from safe spaces, into new a challenging situations where we are forced to confront questions of identity, moral compromise and taboo and arrive at conclusions which we can reconcile with our own values.
Influencing and compliance
Global experts and international bodies are chased for guidance in the coronavirus crisis relating to mask-wearing, washing, physical distance, essential travel, closing and re-opening of businesses, sharing of private data for contact tracing and immunity passports plus a long list of new requirements. Authorities are faced with choices about the relevance, mode of implementation and sustainability of the new rules in their communities. One-size-fits-all prescriptions may be enthusiastically adopted in some cultures, ignored or rejected in others.
The skills of interculturalists are often brought into knowlege-transfer and compliance programmes where global organisations seek to achieve consistent results in very different cultural contexts. The intercultural profession, perhaps more than any other, brings the skills to adapt messaging effectively into diverse cultures. The input of interculturalists is valuable both in forming the original source guidance and in its implementation in local communications campaigns.
Policy-makers, committees and leaders are faced with big decisions in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. Do change our business model? What level of risk can we ask our stakeholders to take on? When is the right time to stop or resume operations? Which core activities must we protect? How can we balance the need for speed with the need to consult and follow the usual channels? How much can we compromise our usual standards?
Intercultural professionals are used as personal performance coaches by executives and teams who are moving into unfamiliar situations or simply wishing to improve decision-making skills. Intercultural skills are needed for sourcing input to decisions, generating a sense of inclusion and commitment from the multicultural teams whose work those decisions affect.
At times of uncertainty, communities and employees look for leadership. The coronavirus crisis has given leaders a unique moment to show career-defining wisdom, skill and decisiveness. In many cases, lives and livelihoods might depend on it.
Many interculturalists are providing the global leadership skills or even the entire set of leadership skills in corporate leadership training. In cross-border organisations, leaders need to an additional set of competences.When the context shifts from home culture a foreign or multicultural situation, an interculturalist can help leaders review their previously successful habits need rethinking for the new operating environment.