agent of arcadia

How to successfully communicate cross culturally

In Collaboration, Communication, culture, Development, Effectiveness, Language, Leadership, Strategy, Team, teamwork on July 3, 2017 at 6:07 am

Once upon a time, some 100,000 years ago, language was born when a human uttered the first word to another human.

Fast forward to the modern day and language is only a part of how we communicate these days as we navigate our way through other communication complexities such as technology, virtual reality and multiculturism.

As we move swiftly forward in a global entrepreneurial world, multicultural teams become more and more prevalent, and having the ability to break down any communication barriers is vital to ensuring that collaboration and productivity stays at a high.

For as if it’s not hard enough to communicate with someone when you don’t even know their preferred communication style, default behaviors, or conflict preferences, or worse, when you can’t even see their visual cues and body language, as in the case of a remote team, add in time difference, distance and cultural differences, and you won’t be blamed if you sometimes feel as if you might as well throw in the towel. What’s more, all of this can occur even if you’re speaking the same language!

Such triggers can frustrate and give rise to conflict.

Not all is lost though. The very crux of communication is about ownership of the message you send as much as the message received. After all, how can you expect someone to understand you when you can’t even understand yourself? There are some things you can do to strengthen and grow your communication toolkit. And its roots come from more than speaking the same language, indeed, more than what you say or the words you use.

So how do multicultural teams successfully deal with multicultural challenges? One of the most successful ways is to recognize complexities and adapt accordingly. Acknowledge the diversity and rather than focusing on this as a barrier, learn to celebrate this. Identify cultural gaps openly and work around them.

Diplomat and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said:

“Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where people are becoming more and more closely interconnected.”

He is not wrong. Successful cross cultural communication stems from cultural intelligence, the success of which depends on three pillars.

Cultural intelligence: The three pillars

The benefits of working in a multicultural team are priceless: deep global insight into trends, better understanding of customer sensitivities therefore better customer service, increased creativity and drive for innovation, and swifter adaptability and quicker reaction time to paradigm shifts.

A multicultural team is a diversified team and diversity is best dealt with a sense of awareness, humility and understanding.

One of the most important factors to succeeding in cross cultural communication is respect.

Awareness is the other.

Trust, the third.

Indeed, this is important no matter if the team is multicultural or not.

These three pillars are non-negotiable for any communication to be successful and for any collaboration to be worthwhile.

Respect: Begin by parking your ego at the door. Just because someone is different to you, does not necessarily mean they are wrong. Respect the diversity and embrace different cultures and values. Practice having an open mind, flexibility and tolerance. Exercising patience can also help you better navigate situations where things may become uncertain or unpredictable. Show respect for the person you are communicating with by checking assumptions rather than stereotyping or jumping to conclusions.

Awareness: If you work in a multicultural team or in various global locations, you may have noticed that some cultures may be less likely to voice their opinions. By no means does this mean they have nothing to say or a lack of ideas to contribute. You may find that cultures such as the Japanese and the Chinese, and even those from Finland tend to be more reserved in their contributions to a conversation. They are not known to mince words so when they do interact, their responses are efficient and short. The Spanish, Italians and Brazilians, on the other hand, tend to be more generous with their words, and you may even notice that they’re more willing to share and contribute, no matter the occasion. Having an awareness of these differences, encouraging everyone to share equally and giving those who are less likely to voice their opinion the avenue and platform to do so can open doors to trust and collaboration.

Trust: Consistency is important to build trust. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say builds a sense of reliability and credibility, which if perceived to be consistent, helps to establish rapport and trust. Be honest and transparent with your values and in your opinions but do so with a sense of cultural sensitivity to those around you.

By all means, use these pillars to guide you through every interaction, be they multicultural or not. For those cross cultural interactions, try applying the three pillars into tangible strategies to communicate successfully in a multicultural team, whether you’re a manager leading the team or someone within the team.

Let’s explore these strategies.


For the leader

Lead the way: Model the right behavior and keep your word. Go back to the foundations, remember those three pillars? Show respect, gain awareness and earn trust. Then set up your protocols and build your communication strategy to communicate with your team based on those.

Set up protocols: What this does is officiate things so that there are no misinterpretations. This comes in especially helpful should a conflict arise. When something is in black and white, it can often be referred to as a mediator to help fast track conflict resolution that can otherwise be confused further with differing cultural nuances.

Intervene early: They say prevention is better than cure. So get in early and understand the lay of the land. This is especially important in project management, team building and conflict resolution.

Engage everyone on the team: Engage and involve all team members equally, even and especially more so from the quieter ones. It’s important to understand that cultural differences can dictate how a team member participates even when encouraged to do so. Individuals from egalitarian and individualistic countries, such as the US or Australia, may be more comfortable in freely expressing their opinions and ideas. These are likely to be the individuals more accustomed to and receiving of a feedback culture. On the other hand, individuals from hierarchical cultures, such as Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia and Singapore, may only be comfortable speaking up after having heard from their seniors.

Seek feedback: Seek feedback from everyone in the team. This does not have to be a complicated exercise. It can be as simple and informal as a pulse check question to see how you are going, so ask: “How am I going? What do you need from me?” Do this bearing in mind the need to engage with everyone on the team, even if that means you have to do so in private. This can be especially helpful when dealing with individuals such as the Fins, Chinese and Japanese, who prefer not to ‘lose face’ in a public forum, and will therefore keep most of their opinions to themselves.

Leaders managing multicultural teams will also benefit from the following, which apply to those within the team.


For the team member

Build bonds: Forging ties with the people you work with can help you better collaborate with them and work through conflict more effectively because there is already a shared bond. It’s important to be aware that different cultures build rapport in different ways and in varied timeframes. Some cultures naturally warm to others quickly, while others may appear standoffish. Instead of stereotyping and at the risk of making a mistake should you do so, find out a little more about the person you have been tasked to work with, for example, and make individual connections to foster rapport. When doing so, find something you both have in common and look for opportunities to work together on a project that feeds that common goal.

Practice sensitivity: Think twice before you send out that reactive email response or tell a joke you think is funny. Run through your words through the eyes of the other party and see if they can be misconceived. Remember, the message received is as important as the message delivered, so take accountability of what you say and how you say it.

Listen empathically: Listening is an important element in any form of a two-way communication. In a multicultural environment, it is even more essential to listen with empathy. This means looking out for cues other than that which your counterpart is sending you through their words. Paying close attention to visual cues and body language can assist you to better understand each other when language can sometimes become a barrier. A word used to describe an emotion can only take a conversation so far as that word defines that emotion. The same word, when accompanied with a visual cue, such as a frown or a smile, can give a three dimensional perspective that is priceless.


Find middle ground

No matter if you’re a manager leading a multicultural team or someone working within a multicultural team, skill yourself in each other’s cultural aspects. Read to understand how you each communicate best, what words are trigger points, and find middle ground to strike a balance. Use the three pillars, respect, trust and awareness, to guide you through every interaction and apply the strategies to successfully interact with those around you. And if still in doubt, nothing beats checking your assumptions and asking questions to start a dialogue and have an open conversation to get a better understanding.


Copyright © agentofarcadia 2017


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: