Intercultural diversity: turning challenge into opportunity

Intercultural diversity: turning challenge into opportunity

In my intercultural coaching work, I support mainly, though not exclusively, two client profiles. The first are companies in which teams from different countries need to work together. This is often done on a project basis, bringing people to collaborate with clients and colleagues they do not know that well; sometimes it is the result of a takeover or merger, and other times it is the consequence of an internal reshuffle that reassigns roles and redraws team boundaries. I recently worked with a French HQ team working on a project with their firm’s British subsidiary, to help them understand and adapt their behaviours for better results with their anglo-saxon colleagues. The other typical type of clients are managers in charge of multicultural teams. I have run numerous workshops for big NGOs, helping recently promoted managers navigate both their new responsibilities and their culturally diverse teams.

Whatever the profile type, I am almost always asked the same questions:

Can we overcome the challenges of working across cultures? How?

My answer is always the same too:

Yes! But why stop at overcoming challenges and obstacles, when – with a little thought and effort – you can turn those challenges into opportunities and advantages?

Here’s how.

  1. Know thyself

The first step towards greater cultural awareness and the ability to leverage difference to your advantage is to get to know your own culture.

Two fish are cruising around their tank one day when they pass an older fish coming from the other direction. “How’s the water?” asks the solo swimmer. “What water?” reply the young sprats. That’s culture. It’s the water we’re swimming around in that we do not even realise is there.

One way of discovering the values and shared references that underpin the society that shaped you is to consider your country’s proverbs and sayings; these often convey deeply held beliefs. It’s also important to think about your personal culture, which is influenced by many other things, ranging from your profession (you’re a lawyer? maybe you value justice…) to your hobbies (do you value creativity, fitness, fair play?) and your religion (charity? fidelity? humility?).

  1. Educate others

A simple way of helping culturally diverse teams work together is to organise team meetings in which people of different cultures take the realisations they’ve made about their own culture (see step 1!) and share them with their workmates. Maybe Guillaume explains that he and his countrymen tend to keep work and private life very separate, but that it is important in France for colleagues to lunch together. Next up, Victoria might explain that British people are quite open and direct in the way they express themselves as a rule, but that when it comes to offering any kind of negative feedback, they will do so less explicitly as diplomacy is paramount. It might help to read books like Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands or Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, for extra insights. So many misunderstandings and so much frustration can be avoided simply by knowing your own culture and then helping others to understand it too. It opens the way to easier communication by acknowledging the elephant in the room and giving everyone permission to voice their differences.

  1. Adopt an anthropological attitude

When interacting with people from other cultures, check your judgement at the door. Remind yourself that with most attitudes and behaviours, there’s no right or wrong, good or bad, there’s just my way and your way, our way and their way. The more you can approach difference with a curious, intrigued and detached attitude – like an anthropologist – the more you can learn and, ultimately, adapt.

  1. Create a team charter

To take cultural understanding to the next level, I encourage culturally diverse teams and their managers to create their own team charter. This consists of defining your team’s values and preferred behaviours and attitudes. It’s a chance for everyone to consider all the different cultures around the table and then agree on a way of being and working together that suits this particular group. Subjects to reflect upon might include how the team feels about punctuality, whether it values socialising outside of work, how it deals with conflict, what it expects from managers and staff members, how it chooses to make decisions. This is an opportunity to bring people together and put in place working methods that can raise the team’s level of collaboration, improve performance and productivity, and boost individuals’ sense of belonging, mutual respect and wellbeing.

  1. Play to your strengths

Another way of leveraging the massive potential that a multicultural team offers is to take into account individual and cultural strengths when assigning projects or tasks. Without, of course, buying into stereotypes, pigeonholing people or denying them the chance to learn, it can be beneficial to consider team members’ natural cultural strengths when handing out jobs. For example, maybe you have a presentation to make to an American client with an empiric, application-based reasoning style. She will need facts, figures and examples to be persuaded that your product is right for her company. You might want to choose your Canadian team member, who shares this mindset, to lead the sub-group working on that particular PowerPoint, rather than the French or Italian colleagues, who both have a theoretical, principles-based method of reasoning in which a theoretical argument is built based on a concept to show the logical thought behind a proposal. Of course, you have to take variation within a culture into account (not all Brits are funny, not all Germans are punctual), but by considering cultural fit you can help your team play to their natural strengths and perhaps even offer opportunities for them to help each other grow. Maybe you ask an implicit communicator to partner an explicit communicator on a delicate negotiation to help the latter develop a feeling for extreme diplomacy. Perhaps your deadline-dependent project is headed up by someone from a culture that values time planning and punctuality, assisted by someone from a time-flexible culture so they can learn from and balance each other.

Ultimately, the two keys to keys to working successfully across cultures are awareness and communication: know your own culture, understand other people’s cultures, then talk, share, and grow.

Are you finding it hard working with other cultures or within a multicultural team? Are you managing people from different cultural backgrounds to your own? Does your company have offices in multiple countries and require staff to work across borders? Working with an experienced, dynamic and practical intercultural coach can help you and your company not just overcome the challenges of our globalised and multicultural society but also unleash the potential of cultural diversity to boost performance and gain competitive advantage.  Contact me to find out how we can work together.