Keys for effective cross-cultural collaboration
Most of us are influenced by our cultural background. You may think you are culturally neutral, but in many cases, you are not. In "The Culture Map", Erin Meyer claims that each culture of origin is distributed within a certain range, and each individual is free to make choices within that range. Then, your cultural position will always change depending on the other person. For example, French people may think that British people are punctual, while German people may think that they are not punctual. When working with people from other countries, you certainly should not assume one's personality based on where they comes from. It however does not mean you do not need to learn about cultural contexts. If your professional success depends on your ability to work well with people from all over the world, you need to understand cultural differences as well as personality differences. What matters is not cultural traits OR individual personality, but cultural traits AND individual personality.
It is important to make language explicit (low-context). In mono-ethnic societies, high-context language is often used. In Japan, people use the most high-context communication over the world because not only is Japan a mono-ethnic island society with a shared history spanning thousands of years, but it also closed off from the rest of the world. Over the millennia, people have become adept at picking up on each other's messages without explicit expressions. On the other hand, the United States, with only a few hundred years of shared history, are made up of immigrants from all over the world, each with a different history, a different language and a different background. With little common context, the American people learned that if they wanted to get their message across, they had to be as explicit as possible, leaving no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding. In an international team, the situation is similar to the one the United States has been in. Trying to communicate as explicitly as possible will reduce miscommunication in the cross-cultural team.
In addition, the common language will often be English. It is never easy for those who use English as a second language. Especially, in verbal communications, they may not be able to keep up with the discussion or communicate their intentions well. On the other hand, they are likely to be better at reading and writing. In my experience, it is important to use written communication on chat apps efficiently as well as low-context communication.
As described, explicit communication is one key to work in the international team. However, this does not work when it comes to negative feedbacks. Direct negative feedbacks can lead to a poor relationship with your team members in some situations. In many European countries, direct negative feedback is preferred as constructive discussion. On the other hand, in most Asian countries, negative feedbacks may seem like denying one's personality. Therefore, giving negative feedbacks in front of many other people, for example in a group meeting, is not a good idea. You should try to give negative feedbacks in one-on-one instead.
If you have been brought up in a culture of giving indirect negative feedbacks, you should not try to be direct. This is because you may end up going too far. What matters here is to accept and understand each other's cultural differences, and receive feedbacks considering cultural differences carefully. If you are accustomed to indirect negative feedbacks, it is necessary not to be offended so much when you receive direct negative feedbacks. If you are from a culture of getting direct negative feedbacks, it is necessary to read between the lines. The negative feedback that you should actually get, is often hidden between positive feedbacks literally like a sandwich. The United States, which I mentioned earlier as a multi-ethnic country with the most low-context communication, actually prefer the sandwich-style indirect expressions when it comes to negative feedbacks.
There are differences in thinking patterns among cultures, which can make persuasion difficult sometimes. In many cases, Asian people think from the macro to the micro, while Western people think from the micro to the macro. For instance, when writing an address, Japanese people write Prefecture, City, Street, and House number. German people do the opposite - they start with Street and House number, then continue with State. Japanese likewise write the surname first, while German write the name first. Japanese write a date as Year-Month-Day, while German do the opposite.
With such differences in thinking, it is not surprising that there are misunderstandings or difficulties between people from Asian and Western cultures. Western people may feel that Asians are taking a detour without daring to get to the point, on the other hand Asians may feel that Westerners are trying to make decisions by taking only one element and ignoring other dependency relationships.
How to build trust at work also differs from culture to culture. In some cultures, trust can be built on a task basis, while in other cultures, relationships on a personal level affect work. In other words, what you have done is only important to obtain trust, or spending hours over dinner after work is a part of the job and actually it is very important. Here is my suggestion for the multicultural teams: have a coffee break or lunch with your colleagues frequently. For those who want to spend time on their own with their family or friends after work, it will be easier to join. However, the lunch should not be too long (better to keep it under an hour).
In conclusion, with the words "diversity" and "global" being used so often recently, many companies are looking for ways to form multicultural teams in order to benefit from increased creativity and a better understanding of the global marketplace. However, as described so far, cultural differences pose a number of challenges. Establishing successful collaboration in a multicultural team can take longer than within a single cultural one, and it often requires more careful management. The followings are two simple tips that can help you reap the benefits of cultural affiliation while avoiding the risks.
Conduct a workshop among team members to understand each other's culture before starting the project. By understanding your cultural position in the team, it would be possible to improve the team collaboration.
Let those who have international experience, if there are any, do most of the cross-cultural collaboration. The rest of the members can work in the way they are accustomed to in their respective countries. In this way, innovation can be made through cross-cultural collaboration, at the same time avoiding inefficiencies caused by culture clashes.
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