Intercultural communication has been a topic in teams and organisations for quite some time. Still, in recent years the situation has changed and now requires a different approach to dealing with cultural differences.

Until only a few years ago, most members of a team were sitting in one location. They had rarely more than one dominating culture. The responsibility to bridge the distance (and the cultural difference) was mainly with the team leader and other high level managers, who would travel around to world to keep in touch with their people and ensure that the work done in the different locations was coordinated and coherent. In some cases the managers were sent to a different country, where they had to learn how the culture differed from their own and adapt to the local practices.

This situation has changed quite considerably in most organisations. Today, most teams spread across many countries, if not continents. There might still be a large group of people in one location (typically in headquarters) but the team is predominantly distributed, and includes people from a number of different cultures. Furthermore, most if not all communication is virtual, and virtual distance (physical, but also operational and most importantly affinity distance) heavily influences the effectiveness of a team.

Old Situation Present
Communication Face-to-face virtual, very little face-to-face
Leadership Manager bridges communication and cultures, represents HQ in the other culture Manager facilitates intercultural dialogue; works to align HQ and local needs and interests
Culture 1 or 2 cultures dominate in each team, those who do not fit, have to adapt no dominant culture, team members have to learn to deal with multiple cultures and languages
Structure Center-satelite Network

How then do we deal with intercultural communication issues in this new context?

Learn how cultures differ

There are a number of different models about intercultural communication. They each present slightly different dimensions of how cultures differ. Which ones are important to look at and understand?

It is not that important to know how to behave at a formal dinner party when you are mostly working virtually. So, what we focus our attention on those cultural issues that make virtual collaboration challenging:

  1. Communication: Do we understand each other?
  2. Coordination: How effective are we working together towards the same goal?

This led us to choose the following dimensions. They are potential sources of conflict for international teams and if you are able to find a good way to deal with these issues, you are on the road for team success in your team:

Dealing with time Scheduling, perception of time, Linear understanding of time, focus on deadline vs. flexible, focus on adaptability
General communication style Low context (clear, explicit) vs. high context (subtle, to be understood depending on context)
Sharing information, participation Readiness to share information and participate in discussion
Dealing with hierarchy, paying respect  Egalitarian vs. hierarchical
Dealing with disagreement Confrontational vs. avoiding, emotionally expressive or unexpressive
Giving feedback Direct vs. indirect negative feedback
Taking decisions Consensual vs. top-down, quick vs. long discussion process

Facilitate dialogue about cultural differences

As with many other issues that can make or break teamwork (e.g. Trust), it is important to take the topic out into the open and make it discussable. This can be done, for instance, by directly talking about the different perspectives your fellow team members have on the dimensions we outlined above. What are the expectations each team member has towards the rest of the team?

Once you have the issues out in the open, try to identify common ground, define rules or forge an agreement to deal with those issues, from which potential conflict can arise. We recommend you agree on a timeframe to work with this agreement (at least 2 months), and then schedule a meeting to review how it is going and if your agreement has to be adjusted. Once the team has gotten used to their joint way of communicating and collaborating the team culture usually continues to develop organically. Still, be aware of potential conflicts that can arise, and address them instead of letting them foster. Also ensure that new team members are properly integrated and introduced to the team culture (in a culturally sensitive way).

Tips for improving communication across cultures

A good starting point is to adopt a communication culture that is very clear and explicit. This can also be called low-context communication. Here are some main tips for achieving effective inter-cultural communication:

  • Talk openly about the possibility of misunderstandings: Most likely misunderstanding will happen. Preempt that by having a discussion about it at the very beginning.
  • Explain, why you are doing something: When you do communicate with the team, explain the purpose of what you do at every stage: why you are repeating something, why you are summarising at the end, why you are changing course, and so on. This makes context explicit and helps everyone understand what is going on.
  • Set-up rules for communication: Decide in advance how to set up a meeting, when to distribute the agenda, set up the rules for communication.
  • Put more in writing: Use written messages to introduce a meeting’s purpose, and post-meeting conclusion. Even though you express it in writing don’t assume it will be understood or remembered.
  • Take turns in being responsible for the communication process of the team: By taking turns, for example, to organise and facilitate meetings, everyone understands the the different perspectives of the roles in your team, and you arrive at a common communication culture that works for everyone.

As an individual, the best you can do to work effectively across cultures is to practice listening. Learn to listen to what is meant instead of only listening to what is said!

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