Daimler’s costly case for cultural (in)sensitivity

Daimler’s costly case for cultural (in)sensitivity

In all my meetings last week, everybody wanted to talk about this story: The German carmaker Daimler publicly apologized on Tuesday after its Mercedes-Benz brand caused an outcry in China by quoting the Dalai Lama in their Instagram post. Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and a Peace Nobel Prize laureate is greatly respected in the West, but in China he is considered a political troublemaker and a separatist threat.

Mercedes-Benz showed astonishing lack of cultural sensitivity and skills when they posted this picture on their Instagram account this Monday.

“This is an ill-intentioned poster. (…) “It is not only an offense, but even more so, it’s a challenge to the Chinese people. Needless to say, it’s hateful.” People’s Daily

The response was swift and intense, even though Instagram supposedly doesn’t work in China. The outraged users called for a boycott of Mercedes-Benz and the official newspaper People’s Daily called Mercedes-Benz the “enemy of the people” and dismissed their apology saying that it “lacks sincerity and reflects the German carmaker’s lack of understanding of Chinese culture and values”.

Every newspaper article I read about the story, every media opinion and everybody I talked to criticized Mercedes-Benz for their lack of cultural awareness and poor cross-cultural skills. As professor Andy Molinski would surely say, they demonstrated a shocking lack of global dexterity as a business operating in China.

And yet, I cannot help but see another problem here, not directly related to Daimler, but generally connected to Western companies. This problem is not lack of cultural awareness alone, but rather lack of awareness that cultural intelligence and competence are important business factors and as the Mercedes-Benz case shows, can cause very dramatic and costly mistakes. Closely following this is the lack of willingness of the companies to invest in cross-cultural communication and global dexterity trainings. Logically seen, the costs of such trainings and coaching would be negligible compared to the damage which lack of these skills can potentially inflict. Yet, companies are resistant to making investment into cross-cultural and soft skills trainings.

Only last week I had a meeting in a large German company where a team of managers supervising a significant global project with a budget to match discussed with me ways of solving some problems already accumulating within the project. From my background interview I gathered that their people had not been trained in working in such a multi-cultural project and I suggested a holistic solution: a training and coaching program focusing on cross-cultural communication skills and emotional intelligence skills. Sadly, once I started talking about the importance of building cultural competences within the team, I knew I had lost them. In my experience, companies mostly focus on the tangible aspects of doing business, and since the ROI on cultural trainings and soft skills development cannot be easily measured, they are easily dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant. The budgets for such trainings are usually very low compared to the technical skills trainings.

And yet, looking at the unfortunate Daimler and their costly cultural faux pas I cannot help but wonder if the companies operating globally wouldn’t be better served if they started  treating cultural awareness and skills as hard business skills, with adequate training programs to match.

Does your company invest in cross-cultural communication and soft skills trainings? Have you asked your company for such trainings? What was the response?

Share your experience in the comments section below. Thank you!

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