ECG Principal Michael Vivion, PhD, authored this Speak Previews® on issues that affect cross-cultural team communication.
I recently worked with an extended team whose members were Dutch, Belgian, Chinese, Indian, British, and American. The Americans were from Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, Kansas, New York City, and California. We were multi-cultural; we were culturally diverse.
Unfortunately, such designations are often associated with the type of "cultural sensitivity" training that treats different cultures as examples of exotic social behavior. In Japan, bow and take business cards thoughtfully with both hands. Don't make jokes with Germans. In Arabic countries, use the right hand to shake hands or eat.
For many of us, however, the challenge of cross-cultural communication requires more than figuring out proper dinner etiquette or acceptable greetings, important as they may be. Our need for cultural understanding begins as we walk into the room for our next team meeting; our need is to transfer knowledge about cross-cultural communication into our daily activities.
The group I mentioned above was further enriched by function areas: marketing, communication, medical, operations, project management, and regulatory. It included men and women of various ages. The team's mélange had the spice of being composed of consultants from four different firms as well as company representatives. Our cultural differences in nationality, region, religion, company, and expertise were superimposed on our distinctly individual cultures and personalities.
Yet we shared a remit that we had to complete. Where would the cultural anthropologist start? How does the leader move the group forward? Where would a communication expert begin?
With sameness, with similarity, with what is held in common.
The group is a team and shares the characteristics of a team, no matter how complex the cultural differences of its members. That means that the surest first step is to create a team culture, the mesh of behavior and belief that is its foundation.
Participants must establish or recognize goals—those of the organization, the team, each function and every individual. As much as possible, these goals should be made explicit. Each function, for example, might have something specific to accomplish that requires slightly different definitions of its goals. Individual team members should understand how their personal goals mesh with the team's.
Members should also be encouraged to consider their individual motivations for participating on the team. At ECG, we construct an analysis of the personal needs of the participants to shape not only initial team activities but the way meetings are conducted and business is done. Personal needs are not independent of culture; they give cultural manifestations a face. Leadership must develop a plan to ensure that individual motives receive recognition and nurturing.
The tasks that the team has to accomplish must be clearly outlined, defined, and accepted—not just stated. Roles and responsibilities need to be developed and assigned depending on the known strength and expertise of the participants. Task accomplishments should be noted in a way that allows incremental and recognizable success for the team's members.
I haven't mentioned national or other cultural differences yet. That will come in future discussions, but the first step for every cross-cultural team that wants to improve its communication, and therefore its performance, is to understand that team culture demands attention, a little bit of cultural anthropology from its members.