Cultural awareness: let’s talk about the elephant in the room

“Two assumptions jeopardise any intercultural collaboration: that other people share our view of the world and that our way of doing things is the right way,” says Smaranda Boros, Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Management and Organisational Behaviour. “But these are deep-rooted misconceptions. As Blaise Pascal put it: There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees that are falsehoods on the other. What you learn to consider normal is largely shaped by your culture.” Dealing with cultural differences is one of the big challenges cited by companies operating internationally. If you want global, culturally diverse teams to succeed, you have to deal with the elephant in the room. Here is some advice.

A matter of attitude and knowledge

Research has shown that moderate cultural diversity causes more conflict and dissatisfaction than high or low diversity. Smaranda explains: “You’re aware that there are differences, but you don’t realise just how big these are and therefore you continue to do what you believe is ‘normal’ (i.e., my way of doing things is ‘the’ way of doing things).”

People working in culturally diverse teams should therefore be aware of the fact that they are living in different worlds. They should be genuinely curious, have an open attitude and be willing to keep on working to find common ground. And they should ask themselves how much they really know about these other cultures. Smaranda: “What the mind doesn’t know, the eye can’t see. The more you know about other cultures, the easier it is to detect delicate situations and the better you’ll spot the difference between a cultural issue and a mere clash of personalities. This knowledge is especially vital when dealing with conflicts.”

I didn’t realise I was being reprimanded

In dealing with conflicts, it is important to realise that there are, for example, emotionally expressive and restraint cultures. Someone from an emotionally expressive culture, e.g. a Southern European one, will pour out their heart while making a point, while this would be extremely unnerving for someone from an emotionally restraint culture like the Scandinavian.

Also important is the difference between direct and indirect communication. “Having people sit around the table talking through their issues is most likely the worst possible intervention for people from a face-saving culture,” Smaranda says. “Let me give another example. Suppose your neighbour is a violinist who practices at all hours, keeping you and your small child awake. If you come from a direct communication culture, you would probably go over and explain politely that, while you do understand she needs to practice, you were wondering whether you could agree on a practicing schedule that would suit you both. If, however, you come from an indirect communication culture, you might praise her – when you accidentally run into her – on her dedication and passion for music, since she’s going through all that trouble to practice every day until the small hours. Anyone not familiar with indirect communication might think you’ve just given her a compliment, while in fact you’ve reprimanded her.” Smaranda smiles. “And unless you’re aware of how these things work in different cultures, you won’t react appropriately. I find the easiest way to teach how to deal with these differences, is to have people role play their ‘normal’ reaction in different situations and then jointly reflect on the implications of each behaviour.”

How can I trust you?

So, cultural differences do impact the way we communicate, perceive hierarchy, express our emotions etc. It is therefore crucial to make these differences and their consequences explicit, right from the start. “You don’t want them lurking under the surface until it’s too late,” Smaranda says, “That’s why I always advise to discuss them up front, when you’re setting up the framework for collaboration. Ask people to explain, with examples, how they see things. Ask them about deal breakers for collaboration. Quite often people will cite lack of trust.”

The reasons for trusting someone, however, differ from culture to culture, as Smaranda explains: “In some cultures you trust people because they do as promised, while in others you don’t trust someone until you get to know them personally. When it comes to leading global, culturally diverse teams, it’s important to keep a balance between formal and informal encounters and to create opportunities for informal socialising that people from some cultures need in order to be able to trust the other.”

Paradoxical findings

Managing culturally diverse teams poses particular challenges, but they are worth the reward. Research indicates that cultural diversity leads to better objective performance, provided the team gets enough time to adjust. Interestingly, members of multicultural teams tend to underestimate their team’s performance. And paradoxically, despite there being more conflicts, people are more satisfied in the end – whereas in monocultural teams conflicts have a negative impact on satisfaction. Smaranda has one final word of advice, though: “Research has proven that global, culturally diverse teams perform better if their members are not forced to be in the same physical space. As much as we may dislike virtual communication, it seems to be the better solution for global teams as it avoids team members having to relocate, which would only add to the complexity.”

Tips & tricks

  • Incorporate moments of reflection and informal discussion as part of the normal routine.
  • Be aware of cultural differences, adopt an open attitude and get to know as much as possible about other cultures.
  • Try to role play a situation and its different resolution strategies in distinct cultures to really understand how culture affects behaviour.

Want to learn how to build and lead sustainable global teams? Then our programme “Leading global teams” might be just the one for you.

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