Jan 25, 2019

Developing cultural awareness for better team communication

Disclaimer: This blog uses some cultural generalizations. Please remember as you’re developing your cultural awareness that people have individual histories and not everyone will be represented by the blanket statements made here.

At a team meeting, a junior employee disagrees with a senior colleague’s point.  What should the junior employee do?

A. Show their interest in the topic at hand and get the conflict out of the way by cutting their colleague off to immediately address the issue
B. Wait for a pause in the conversation and ask to interject, then state their points
C. Say nothing and wait until after the meeting to send their thoughts in writing
D. Say nothing – the senior employee has been at the company longer and speaking up could mean the junior employee disrespects or distrusts their seniority

Does one of these answers stand out as clearly the “right” answer?  For me, it’s option B. As an American, I value being direct and speaking up in the moment, without going so far as to stop someone else in their train of thought.  In my culture, that’s a sign of assertiveness – which is considered a strength. But in other cultures, giving feedback in this manner could be a major mistake.  There is no one “right” answer here.

In countries with stricter hierarchical structures, such as Japan, it would be quite controversial to disagree with a senior colleague in public.  They might opt for D. In Brazil, however, interruptions are common and can show the speaker you’re engaged with their topic, so option A might be the best way to get their doubts out of the way and come to an understanding on the spot…why wait?  Option C might be better for someone from a culture that values open dialogue, but generally does not value direct confrontation, such as the United Kingdom.

Assessing Cultural Awareness

Intricate tapestries of cultural expectation are woven deeply within us and shape our day to day interactions.  Projecting these cultural expectations and “unspoken rules” onto others can lead to conflict. To get to the bottom of any misunderstanding, we must ask two questions:

1) What needs or expectations were not met or what values were trespassed?

2) Did we make those needs and values explicit, or did we assume that they would “go without saying”?  

Through assessment of our own cultural values and assumptions, we start to develop cross cultural awareness.  Cultural awareness is a skill that develops our “inquisitive approach” as a whole and can  help us assess conflict from a more objective point of view. It can also help us approach communication in a way that tailors our message to the hearer, as discussed by Keating and Jarvenpaa in the book “Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office.”  Cultural identity doesn’t stop at national borders, either.   Economic status, race, gender, sexuality, political or religious affiliations, even music preferences and the size of our family or the neighborhood we grew up in can affect the ways we view and interact with the world.  

While we might think we “know why someone is acting a certain way”, assumptions about why someone else “is the way they are” can be just as dangerous as the assumption that they’re just like us.  No one person exactly replicates or shares the knowledge gained through the experience of another.

Self-Reflection to Raise Cultural Awareness

As we confront the realities of an ever-growing diverse global workplace, we must constantly engage in recognizing, assessing, and articulating our own cultural assumptions so that we can improve team experiences.  Ask yourself:

  • What values drive my actions at work?
  • How would I define my work ethic?
  • What characteristics do I esteem in professional relationships?
  • How do my teammates, managers, and direct reports answer these questions?

We must also understand that this type of reflection or explicit honesty about our deep values may not be valued by others.  In fact, it may even make people uncomfortable to be asked to partake in cultural assessment or self-reflective activity.

The idea here appears simple on the surface:  step back and remember we are all raised with a different set of cultural rules and values.  But honing our cultural awareness and toning our cultural competence is a lifelong practice. A great place to start is with studying frameworks for understanding cultural values.  Hofstede’s six dimensions is a popular model with a number of visual reference tools that can help us understand our global coworkers and know what questions to ask if there is a miscommunication.

I’m a multilingual cultural anthropologist who has spent more than a third of my life outside of the USA, traveled or studied in 18 countries, and have settled permanently abroad.  I manage a multinational and globally distributed team who supports a diverse group of coaches around the world (over 20 nationalities are represented in our community of language and communication coaches!) Despite all of this, I still struggle to step back and remember: I’m an American who works like an American and expects others to work like me.  

It’s one thing to be interested, investigative and open-minded while traveling, studying, or living abroad.  But there’s a lot more at stake when we are working across cultures.  Our contributions to the team dynamic, our professional reputation and whether we meet performance expectations or get promoted are all subject to cultural perspectives.  At the end of the day, culture is a set of rules or values that drives meaning in our lives. How we adopt or reject these rules or values is how we create our identity. More importantly, in the global workplace, we must empathize with the cultural identities of those around us to learn how to build a culture of innovation. If there is a misunderstanding on your team, practice stepping back and asking, “What unspoken assumptions and values are at play here?” From there, it becomes easier to approach the resolution process creatively and with an open mind.  

Alyssa Conley
Director of Coach Community, cultural anthropologist, language & travel enthusiast

Interested in reading more? Check out How to be a culturally aware manager and learn how can coaches improve team performance.


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