The subtle art of diplomacy

Paul Lim / flickr

Over the past week, Donald Trump has addressed the United Nations for the first time, delivering what the FT described as a ‘tirade’ against the United States’ adversaries. Brexit skirmishes continue within the Conservative party and with the European Union. And Germany prepared for an election amid growing tensions over immigration. For the art of diplomacy, it’s been quite a few days.

While all these events were unfolding, an event I attended about the cultural challenges of international business made me think about them from a fresh perspective. In business, as in politics, relationships are foundational to success. The subtle understanding of your colleagues and clients – or diplomats and heads of state – is crucial if you are to stand any chance of achieving what you want. It reminded me of the time I spent working in China, where many of the unconscious assumptions I had about how business should be done were challenged, often about things that might at first seem quite innocuous in the West, but in a different culture can leave a lasting impression on co-workers.

Whether on a local, national or an international level, cultural understanding has always been an important ingredient for a successful business; it’s difficult to form relationships without it. In a more uncertain global environment, with Brexit approaching, the World’s largest economy edging towards more protectionist trade policies and an increasingly fractious political environment, cultural understanding is arguably more important than ever.

Heads of state need to hone this skill to rise above the uncertainty and demonstrate true leadership. Managers of businesses need to do the same. The change we’re experiencing – stressful and painful as it may be – will present opportunities in the new relationships and markets that will emerge. Spotting them and knowing what to do will take vision, some courage and no small amount of diplomacy.

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