By Christian Arno, Founder, Lingo24
The presence of talented individuals is important for any organization that wishes to innovate and excel in its field, but good teamwork is essential, providing the bedrock on which future success can be built. The importance of having an effective teambuilding strategy in place is widely acknowledged throughout the business world, with a plethora of resources offering advice and tailored teambuilding services.
However, there are additional factors to bear in mind when it comes to building teams across cultures. Few workforces are entirely mono-cultural these days, and the challenges of welding disparate cultural elements (whether based within the same office or from offices dotted around the globe) into effective teams are challenges faced by an ever-increasing number of organizations.
Make Use of Cultural Research
Cultural research studies such as Geerte Hofstede’s five Cultural Dimensionscan be useful tools. It will almost always be beneficial to peruse and familiarize yourself with such research, but care should be taken when applying it to real-life situations. Theories and conclusions that deal with behavioral tendencies within large groups of people can serve as a general guideline but should never be rigidly applied to individuals.
Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions are:
Differentiate Between Hard and Soft Issues
“Hard” cultural issues are those with easily defined, “concrete” definitions and can include such things as language, diet, and religious requirements. In some ways, these are by far the easiest issues to deal with, whether through a teambuilding exercise or within the everyday work environment. A translator may be required for a team culled from offices in different countries, or perhaps the selection of multilingual individuals may offer a better solution (be aware, though, that communication tendencies can vary between people of different cultures even when they are speaking the same language). Dietary requirements and preferences should be determined and catered to, as should any religious requirements such as prayer times and facilities.
“Soft” issues are cultural values and attitudes that are “hidden,” and these can be harder to identify and cater to. As an example, some cultures have rigid hierarchical structures, with status and formality playing an important role in all work relationships. In such cultures, it may be more difficult for an individual to make suggestions or display initiative if this is considered “above their station.” They also would be more likely to follow instructions without question and less likely to challenge a decision made by a superior. In terms of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, this would relate to the Power Distance Index (PDI).
Be Aware of Communication Issues
English is without doubt the lingua francaof the business world, but that doesn’t guarantee that everyone on a cross-cultural team will speak English (or any other common language) to the same degree. Even among fluent speakers, slang, colloquialisms, or other aspects of linguistic usage can lead to misunderstandings. Team members should be encouraged to regularly ask questions and seek clarification—even if they think they have understood a point. A good method to use is paraphrasing. Rephrase a point and ask, “Is this what you meant?” Humor and especially sarcasm are especially prone to misunderstandings and should not be used unless you are sure the recipient “gets” it. Even then, you should consider whether a work communication is the time and place for such humor.
Different cultures also may have different styles of communication. Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall differentiates between low- and high-context cultures. Low- context cultures (such as the U.S. and Germany) place a high value on direct, clearly expressed communications. High-context cultures (such as Japan and most Arabic countries) place a high value on context. This means that what is left unsaid and elements such as body language and eye contact may be just as important as what is said.
Working with Virtual Teams
Issues of communication can be particularly important when it comes to “virtual” teams. This could be a team working on a project across different countries or continents and the members of that team may rarely, if ever, meet face to face. Communication may be carried out via telephone and e-mail, and care should be taken that all communications are as clear and unambiguous as possible.
Videophone conferencing and “groupware” multi-user technology can help with communication issues and give more of a face-to-face feel even across thousands of miles. Good groupware applications will allow access to shared databases and work files and will provide facilities for live online communications.
When working with teams spread across different countries, details such as time differences also need to be taken into account.
Making It All Work
The absolute key factor when it comes to teambuilding across cultures is to get every member to focus on the objectives of that team. There are challenges involved, but the diversity of a cross-cultural team, if properly nurtured, can be an advantage when it comes to innovation, problem-solving, and business success.
Christian Arno is the founder of translation servicesand localized marketing agency Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has more than 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in 60-plus countries. In the last 12 months, they have translated more than 40 million words for businesses in every industry sector. Follow Arno on Twitter: @Lingo24Chr.