When Cultures Collide
Often, friction is the result of cultural collisions – disagreements stemming from differences in fundamental belief systems, well established processes, and patterns of execution.

Let’s face it: in this complex world, we can’t always all “just get along.”

Often, friction is the result of cultural collisions – disagreements stemming from differences in fundamental belief systems, well established processes, and patterns of execution.

To take an example that often pops up in the United States, we sometimes encounter cultural differences between 3 key interagency actors: the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. But since success in the 21st century security environment is dependent on the “3D” approach (Diplomacy, Development, and Defense), it is imperative that we develop means to overcome any cultural divides that may arise from institutional paradigms and pre-existing “turf” boundaries – factors that can affect countries’ relationships just as much as agencies.

I began trying aggressively to bridge such cultural divides at my previous job as Commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Florida. I’ve continued efforts to resolve cultural differences at U.S. European Command and as the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO.

Over time, I’ve identified a handful of techniques I think are helpful in resolving these kinds of differences. The following techniques apply not only in interagency divisions, but also more broadly in the international arena as we seek creative solutions to complex challenges to 21st century security.

  1. Learn the Language. For relations between nations, this simply means we should all be studying each other’s languages.  To know another language is to understand another life.  Similarly, within the interagency, every organization has its own set of key words, phrases, and sayings.  Knowing what a partner means when they speak is invaluable.
  2. Read the History. In both the international and the interagency realm, take the time to really develop a deep understanding of those across the historical divide. See my reading list here.

    SACEUR, Admiral James Stavridis talks to French troops during a visit to FOB Morales-Frazier, ISAF, Afghanistan. Image by SGT Sebastian Kelm (DEU Army)

  3. Know the Heroes. Nations and organizations have heroes.  Who are they?  Know theirstories and you’ll know another nation or organization well.
  4. Meet the People. Personal contact trumps everything.  Sending all the well meaning emails and posting messages can be helpful, but knowing your partners’ key players as people is essential.
  5. Communicate Constantly. Use every vehicle imaginable – from letters of congratulations to postings on web-sites, to weekly updates, to targeted communication – to let your partners know clearly and transparently what you are thinking.  And above all, be sure to demonstrate that you are listening.
  6. Expand the Problem. Letting other actors into the mix in contentious situations, while undeniably complicating the situation, can often shake the system and unlock disagreements.
  7. Share Credit Lavishly. Everyone likes to get credit.  Colin Powell said once, “You can get anything done in Washington if you’re willing to not get credit.”  This is a good philosophy within the interagency and in the international arena.
  8. Disagree without being Disagreeable. People tend to take things personally when culture is involved.  Keep your differences at the academic and professional level and check your ego at the door.  Never make a disagreement personal.
  9. No Drama. When working across cultures, turn down both the highs and lows, and keep it cool.  What motivates in one culture can be a “turn off” in another.

    U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ray Hensley, a loadmaster with the 86th Operations Group, speaks with an Israeli after helping to deliver fire retardant to Tel Aviv, Israel, Dec. 4, in response to wildfires near Haifa, Israel.  EUCOM routinely provides foreign humanitarian assistance in response to crises in the region in the same manner as other regional partners. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Wilson)

  10. Find a Common Problem to Solve. When two or three potential partners –  interagency or international – can agree on something that is not working, this can often be a bridge.
  11. When on Death Ground, Fight. It is important to get along and connect, but in the course of doing so, protecting what is essential in your culture is important.  There should be few redlines, but those that exist must be vigorously defended.
  12. Build the Right Organization. There is more than one way to organize, and if the goal is good intercultural partnership, creating special nodes on a staff (for example, a J-9 for interagency or a J-10 for private-public partnering on a military staff) can help.  Having liaisons from partners at a high level with real authority (not just parked in a meaningless staff element way down the food chain) can likewise help.

If you have other ideas on how to bridge cultural divides, I’d love to hear them! We’re working hard at U.S. European Command to reach across the cultural divide to State, USAID, and other interagency partners at our level. We’ll continue to work on this internationally, as well. And of course our work at SHAPE is grounded in building common frameworks within the Alliance. The challenges of this turbulent and dynamic 21st century demand it.

Adm. James Stavridis
Commander, U.S. European Command and
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe

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