The topic of intercultural awareness and competence in the work world has never been more crucial. In a time when remote work has become commonplace, and where multicultural teams are increasingly prevalent, building awareness and knowledge across cultures have become a must. As many companies with a global footprint know, one of the big challenges is how to create an organizational culture that resonates with employees in different parts of the world. It turns out that it’s almost impossible to establish a common work style across cultures without first ensuring knowledge of our own, and each other’s, “cultural entry points”.

The simplified reason for why this is difficult is that we all have some measure of pre-programmed cultural propensities when it comes to how we communicate, collaborate, and function within a group or a hierarchy. Most of us are unaware of our own cultural tendencies, and how they inform how we interact with others, or how we behave in certain circumstances. Likewise, we often lack knowledge about what our counterpart’s cultural background means. As Globiana’s COO, Steffen Henkel puts it: “The level of awareness of cultural differences is a culture difference in itself”.

That’s because our cultural biases impact everything from how we view time, to hierarchies, to communication, etc. Consider the simple example of a workgroup where employees on a team see the importance of adhering to a set timeline differently — some come from a culture where timelines are strictly followed, and others from a culture where they are considered loose guidelines. It’s not hard to imagine the miscommunication and frustration among the employees once a project is underway and the parties who are supposed to collaborate are not on the same page about what needs to be done when. When this kind of discord takes hold, it is ultimately the quality of work that suffers.   

Intercultural Training is not the Same as Common Sense

A misconception about how to address cultural differences is that it’s just a matter of applying common sense. And since everyone can do that (in theory), investing in intercultural training is not necessary. The problem with that thinking is that common sense is in itself based on cultural assumptions, or as Steffen Henkel says: “Common sense does not exist. There is what one perceives as common sense in one’s own reference system, whether this also applies to other reference systems, one can’t know.” 

When it comes to the impact of gaps in intercultural knowledge, it is typically the case that something has to go wrong before the stakeholders take notice and decide to act. One such example comes from a recent Globiana client. 

The client was getting poor feedback in a customer-facing support division where the workgroups were spread out across Europe, Asia, and the US. The groups were not able to perform according to protocol, and they had communication issues that manifested in frequent miscommunication and unnecessary escalation of support issues. Their customers suffered the consequences as support was halting. 

A needs analysis by Globiana’s intercultural trainers identified the overarching issues affecting the support team as:

  • a lack of cross-cultural awareness within, and between the workgroups in different parts of the world.
  • a lack of understanding of how to communicate between groups located in different parts of the world.
  • a lack of feeling empowered in, and aligned with, company culture, as well as the other teams — in particular on part of employees in one geographic location.

Solutions to Address Intercultural Issues

Based on the needs analysis, Globiana’s trainers came up with a strategy for how to address the identified problems. They designed a segmented training program that included all affected workgroups. In a simplified breakdown, it looked something like this:

  1. Overview of the other cultures, including stereotypes, regional and generational differences, along with language biases. These sessions included active participation exercises.
  2. Combine the various groups in global virtual mixed team sessions to get the teams to speak to each other and not just about each other. Employees did exercises together to illustrate where and why their communication would break down.
  3. Collaboration between groups to develop a joint understanding of what the company values and culture are, and how they relate to the team — as a group and as individuals. This was also done virtually with teams from across the globe meeting online where a trainer served as a guide/moderator.

What Intercultural Training Can Lead To

As the training program progressed, improvements started happening in several areas. There was increased understanding and adoption of company values across the groups, and as they gained insight into how to communicate with each other, and knowledge about what it was that guided the different cultures in such things as decision-making, for example, collaboration across borders became easier. Gradually, the performance improved and the groups could provide customer support according to protocol, and up to company standard. The workgroups adopted a “we” mindset as opposed to differentiating themselves depending on their physical location. 

Ultimately, It’s a Matter of Quality of Work and Competitiveness 

Investing in intercultural training is crucial for global companies who want a strong company culture to guide the work of employees who come from disparate cultural backgrounds. It’s equally important in order to ensure effective communication and productive collaboration. 

Going forward, in an increasingly global work world, whether in person or via virtual collaboration, having knowledge about your counterparts from across the world, and a shared understanding of company values and goals, is not going to be a luxury that is a “nice-to-have” — it’s going to be a necessity to stay competitive. 

By: Felicia Shermis

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