Understanding multicultural perspectives is necessary to create globally connected teams
In a globally connected workplace, it is common for a person in India to start her work day with calls from Australia or Japan and end with calls to North America or even Latin America. The physically connected office space has lost its pre-eminence or exclusivity in many ways, in a larger global context. Real-time collaboration across geographies and time zones has become key and at times the only model for achieving larger organisational objectives.
Globalisation and collaborative remote working have been the two biggest catalysts of change in enabling the transition to a broader connected workplace. Teams today often comprise members from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, each bringing distinct mindsets, attitudes and value systems to the table.
Multicultural teams, located across time zones, are expected to collaborate effectively to deliver desired levels of efficiency. Diversity is leveraged for superior performance. The remote working model, greatly aided by advancements in technology, has almost converted the mandatory physical meetings to discretionary and at times taken them out of the narrative completely.
The new working model has, however, not come without its own challenges. The comfort of being able to establish rapport in the traditional non-formal spaces in office is no longer possible for creating the informal relationships so essential for effective collaboration and better teamwork. The crutch of visual cues might no longer be available since a lot of the interaction today takes place through non-visual means.
Switch from functional to soft skills
Newer working methodologies require new skill sets. It is therefore necessary to have an understanding of the challenges faced, skill sets required and the ways of acquiring the same. Experience of working as part of a globally connected workspace has highlighted as never before that just functional skills are not enough. The work force today needs to possess more holistic skills to be able to collaborate. Additional learning is required in ‘soft skills’, particularly in the area of intercultural awareness and an understanding of its various nuances.
Most large companies put their executives through structured learning programmes that focus on the ‘soft skills‘ requirements of the new workspace, given that as a person progresses in the organisation, her ability to work as part of a team as well as lead it effectively becomes the key differentiator.
In a globalised virtual workplace, soft skills often translate to the competence of working collaboratively with culturally diverse colleagues. It is not without reason therefore that The Future of Jobs Report, published by the World Economic Forum in 2018, states that a critical skill of the modern workplace is “Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do”.
The elements of Awareness, Acknowledgement and Adapting are key in acquiring these skills.
Awareness: Of self and others
The first step to becoming workforce-ready is awareness; both self-awareness and awareness of others; awareness that multiple perspectives might co-exist within the same space. While someone in India may culturally prioritise building interpersonal relationships as key to team dynamics, someone from Finland may have a different approach to this.
Research confirms that people from most of the Asian and Middle Eastern countries lay a lot of stress on relationships. Research also confirms that people of such countries devote proportionately higher time to “small talk” at the start of meetings than people from certain North European countries. It is important to have an awareness of these cultural nuances to be effective in these meetings.
Geert Hofstede’s studies on cultural dimensions of countries remains a valuable resource for understanding business cultures of countries. According to him, “Culture is the software of the mind”. People can be bucketed as per their nationality and assigned specific behavioural traits. While this is an excellent starting point for intercultural awareness, reality is that national stereotypes need not always work. A person of ethnic Indian origin, for example, may be born in London, go to school in the Netherlands and work in Canada and Korea. It could be difficult to find stereotypical nationality traits in her! With dissolving national boundaries, it makes sense to remember that the person one faces inside a meeting room could have a mind shaped by forces very different from one’s own.
Acknowledgement: Accept without attaching value judgements
Cultural differences have been associated with the metaphor of an iceberg by Edward T. Hall. Above the surface lie visible differences like clothes, language, monuments, food; but below the surface lie the values and beliefs that shape human minds. Missing them carries risk.
But even if one is aware, what is one supposed to do with this knowledge? The answer lies in acknowledgement and acceptance without attaching value judgements. Gingerly sidestepping differences to avoid collision does not lead to synergy in the long run. Acknowledgement is essential, not just of the differences but also the similarities.
I once received a request to conduct a workshop for stakeholders whose conflicts were disrupting work. Group 1 was accusing Group 2 of being rude; Group 1 also felt undervalued. Group 2 was accusing Group 1 of being disrespectful. The complaints of each were as follows:
Group 1: “Even if we are a minute late for a scrum call, they are rude. They tell us bluntly that we should attend the call punctually or they will shift the time to a later slot in the day. It’s not that we are late every day. We try explaining that the slight delay is caused while working on their engagement, but they are still unhappy.”
Group 2: “We fixed the timing of the scrum call as per mutual convenience. Yet they keep us waiting. We suggested that we reschedule the daily scrum to a later time. They have refused, yet they continue to be late. They show no respect for our time.”
On digging deeper, one realised that the conflict was essentially due to the way commitment was perceived by each. For a 10am meeting, Group 2 wrapped up other work by 9.50 and started dialling in, latest, by 9.57. They believed timeliness was the way to show respect for Group 1’s work.
Group 1, however, ensured that the daily deadlines were met without fail. If possible, extra work was completed before the scrum call. In that process, if one did get delayed by a minute or two, it was fine, as meeting overall work deadlines was most important. This was Group 2’s way of showing respect for the trust that Group 1 had reposed in them.
Politeness is not just about punctuating one’s speech with expressions like ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’. Politeness is interpreted and actualised differently in each culture, as is respect. Awareness of a difference or a similarity means nothing unless one understands and acknowledges the intent and thought process behind it.
Adapting: Accommodating new frames of reference
This expression does not involve a fundamental change in one’s identity, nor adoption of a new temporary persona for each interaction. It involves a maturing process where one breaks set habits of looking at things from a single perspective and stretches one’s mind to accommodate new frames of reference.
British English is “a high-context language” often used with classic indirectness and dry humour. Expressions like “Not bad at all”, “That’s rather interesting!” “That’s a brave move, indeed!” might be misunderstood completely if used with a person with low proficiency in the language or even someone with a “direct communication” style. When the user of British English accommodates such an interlocutor by using simple, direct language that conveys exact meanings, she demonstrates the ability to adapt to context. She does not unlearn her native knowledge of English nor abandon her standard way of speaking but demonstrates that she allowed context to shape her communication and, in the process, steered an interaction to a successful closure.
Similarly, behavioural accommodation according to context enhances the chances of collaboration. A truly successful intercultural interaction involves both interlocutors coming forward to understand, accept and offer varying perspectives, in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. What emerges from such interactions might be a new operating culture, that neither interlocutor brought along, but that both, together, brought about.
There are many tools in the market that can be used to develop intercultural competence. Milton Bennett’s DMIS model and Csaba Toth’s ICQ Global are excellent examples where an individual is taken through the entire journey from awareness to acknowledgement to adapting. There are also large amounts of online resources and webinars, available free of cost, organised by reputed bodies like SIETAR that can be accessed freely.
In the past, one believed that human minds were shaped during childhood and youth; that as an adult, one was trapped in one’s behaviour, even if against one’s will. Latest research in neuroplasticity has proved otherwise. With consistent effort, a person can develop new neural pathways to develop new ways of thinking and behaving. Findings from neuroscience are being used extensively in intercultural training today and handing over the power of change to the individual.
Dolon Gupta specialises in Articulation in English, Intercultural Communication and Management, and Acquisition of Natural Languages and Soft Skills. She was the Global Head of Culture and Language Initiatives at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)