Do you think that English as a common working language is enough to ensure your global team flourishes? Does your team often create misunderstanding rather than communicate effectively? Do you think the team may benefit from knowing how to navigate the intercultural context better?
The strength of multicultural teams is the diversity of their perspective, experience and way of operating. If only this came together in a constructive way, it would lead to breakthrough innovation and performance! In reality, this is far from easy: When we work with people from other cultures and backgrounds, our own reality and interpretations may be quite different to theirs. This is due to our own cultural lens, or cultural bias, that has us operating in a fairly limited range of perspectives and behaviours.
With the growth of globalisation, you might think that cultural background is becoming less relevant as people are blending cultures while studying, working and living abroad. Despite the increase of English as lingua franca in the business world, organisations find that their multicultural workforce faces some key challenges around communication that have to do as much with cultural styles as with language barriers. In the following you will find the main issues we see in our work with global (virtual) teams, cross-cultural leaders and expatriates, with some recommendations as to how to improve intercultural communication.
When people talk about culture, people often either minimise “ah, we are all humans, culture is not that important…” or tend to exaggerate “yes, lots of problems, she always does this…” Both extremes are unhelpful.
English as a global business language
English native speakers seem to have it easy. Or so it seems. Our experience shows that in multicultural groups, the non-native speakers get along better among themselves when speaking English than a native English speaker with a non-native. To some extent, this may be due to the (slight) disadvantage and inadequacy some non-natives feel in expressing their ideas. I remember a former French colleague, very well spoken and eloquent, who, when doing a presentation in English, would lose a lot of his impact and conviction.
- Be patient and slow down. This goes for English native speakers, but also for people whose mother tongue is spoken relatively fast, e.g. Spanish and Italian.
- Invest in language tools and courses that help you improve your pronunciation.
- Use short, easily defined words and phrases, avoid jargon unless it is helpful for the professional context and beware of humour and jokes.
- Recognise that language proficiency does not automatically lead to intercultural competence.
- Allow enough time for people to talk to each other in their mother tongue so that they can explore and define what to say and paraphrase it back into the working language.
Having constructive feedback conversations is a challenge even in monocultural settings but can be a veritable minefield across cultures.
Stereotyping and ignoring differences
When people talk about culture, people often either minimise “ah, we are all humans, culture is not that important…” or tend to exaggerate “yes, lots of problems, she always does this…” Both extremes are unhelpful. Stereotypes are value judgements about a certain type of behaviour that we attribute to a specific group of people, such as “They don’t have a sense of humour” … because they seem very formal to you and hardly ever smile.
On the other hand, there are observable preferences among cultures which are shared by the majority of the cultural group. For example, when in Germanic countries you will observe that trains run on time (most of the time!), people turn up for meetings and try to adhere to a given timeframe. This reflects a cultural preference for punctuality. And you will of course encounter individual Germans that are unpunctual.
- Practise recognising differences without falling into stereotypes. Be curious rather than judgemental.
- Watch foreign-language films, first with subtitles and then without, ideally go with someone from that culture and have a conversation about it afterwards. Read books written by foreign authors, look for culture-specific heroes, legends and mythology.
- Visit cultural events, ask your foreign colleagues about their country and traditions, what kind of music they listened to when they grew up. Find the spark that connects you.
Having constructive feedback conversations is a challenge even in monocultural settings but can be a veritable minefield across cultures. A very useful cultural distinction to keep in mind here is direct-indirect communication. Direct communication means that you use clear and precise language to get your point across even at the risk of causing offence. In Germanic Northern European countries, being open and frank is seen to help interactions. People appreciate straightforwardness as they can respond better and learn how to improve. With a preference for indirect communication, such as in Arab, Asian and Latin American cultures, people appreciate and can read the meaning of gestures, silence, tone of voice and posture. How you say it counts more than what you say.
- Recognise the difference between direct and indirect communication and your own preference – this may vary in different contexts, e.g. more direct at home and with friends and more indirect at work.
- If you are very direct and dealing with someone indirect, slow down. Let them know you have a tendency to be direct but make a real effort to adapt. Consider the story of the Bangladeshi director who worked with Dutch volunteers. The Dutch had told her about their direct communication style and that they really had good intentions with what they were saying to her. The Bangladeshi director said, “Ok, I understand it is their way of talking, but in the evening I felt so sad. I couldn’t help wondering why they treated me so bad.”
- Ask more open questions when dealing with indirectness. Questions starting with “How”, “for the sake of what”, “what/where/who/when” are useful to better understand the context and the other person’s position. Avoid “do you understand?” which may sound patronising, use “tell me, how do you see it?” or “what is your perspective on this?” Listen deeply.
- If you prefer “saving face” or indirect communication (e.g. Middle East, Asian, some British English) you risk that people may not always be able to “read” what you are saying. Give concrete examples and say what behaviour/results you would like to see more of (feedforward).
- If you find you are not getting through in a constructive way, seek advice from someone who is familiar with or closer to the culture than you are. When the Chinese project group of a multinational came together with their US counterparts, the Americans could not find a way to relay their differing product opinions without offending the Chinese, who became increasingly withdrawn. Only when the two groups were split up, Hongkong-Chinese who had more experience with “Western direct talk” mediated by showing the value of the US colleagues’ opinion to the Chinese and educating the US colleagues how they could reframe their suggestions without causing offence.
Humans have a tendency to seek emotional mirror responses and are uneasy with the opposite.
Participation and Generating Ideas
People from more egalitarian or individualistic cultures, such as the US and Australia, tend to speak up easily and express unfiltered ideas and opinions. More hierarchical or collectivist cultures (Asians but also some Mediterranean) tend to position themselves in relation to their peers and managers and may not speak up until a more senior person has expressed their opinion.
- When generating ideas or feedback in a group, agree clear communication principles at the start. Go around the table (or video conference line) in a structured way, e.g. “now we do a round of out-of-the-box ideas”, “clarifying questions only”, “what’s good about it”, “what concerns me about it” etc.
- If uneven contribution is a problem, have people think to themselves for a minute and jot down their ideas rather than thinking out aloud. And ask them to build on each other’s ideas.
- Latins may be comfortable with more interruptions and overlapping conversations than people with a linear preference such as Germanics. Again, establish clear principles with your team members at the outset and revise regularly.
- Understand that silence means different things in different cultural contexts. US Americans tend to find silence difficult whereas others (e.g. Finns, Japanese) will be using silence to think.
Another area of difference in cross-cultural teams is comfort with public disagreement. People with preference for group harmony and “saving face” (Asians) will be challenged by open confrontation as it signals collective failure. In other cultures, openly expressed respectful criticism is a sign of trust and progress. The range of emotional expression is also culturally conditioned, as is the use of “I” as opposed to “We”. It is important to note that humans have a tendency to seek emotional mirror responses and are uneasy with the opposite. Observing without judging is key here.
- The expressive person (Latin and Middle Eastern) seeks a direct emotional response, they want to hear or sense: “I share your feeling about this.” Emotions are used to persuade in arguments and negotiations. Showing emotions does not mean that the person’s decision-making process is purely emotional!
- The neutral-expression person (Asians, Northern/Eastern Europeans) will seek an emotionally more indirect response, such as: “I agree with you and can support this.” They still feel the emotion but it does not show as easily on the outside.
- To synergise diversity, think “perspective” not “position”. This means that you need to create a third “neutral” space and have people agree on a purpose, listen deeply to each other’s perspective and suspend all assumptions. Say “In my cultural context, we would do/see it like this – how about in yours?” Ask everyone to oﬀer pros and cons on a particular course of action. Generate a different perspective that could encompass the positives of the individual contributions or opinions.
- Assign a “devil’s advocate” whose remit is to challenge the different propositions. The role can be rotated across agenda items or across meetings, so everyone becomes more comfortable in it.
These are all common areas where intercultural conflict shows up. We have given some tips and recommendations to improve communication in Global Teams, however, there is no quick fix. The Golden Rule of Intercultural Communication is “seek to understand the other rather than define the other”, which is a mindset that needs to be practised consciously over time. Observing, deep listening, asking culturally sensitive questions, acquiring culture-specific knowledge and cultural self-awareness are essential ingredients for developing intercultural communication skills.