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Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

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Gender is one of the diversity factors of global teams; men and women do have different ways of viewing the world, of living life and of doing business in general, but it is just one of the factors. Focusing on gender difference alone does not create high-performing teams.

A 26-year-old male Brazilian software engineer who grew up on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro has a fairly different perspective of the world compared to a 55-year-old female Swiss marketing manager who grew up in the centre of Zurich. But is it’s not their gender alone that creates the filter through which they view the world. In global, project-based teams where organisations bring culturally diverse people together (virtually) so that they can gain on creativity, capitalise on less travel expenses and spend less on expatriate assignments, this culturally diverse combination is very common.

Try searching, ‘high performing teams’, and usually the results will come up with a list of attributes that includes trust, dealing with conflict, open communication, giving feedback and valuing diversity. The first item on that list needs to be valuing diversity. The way we deal with the previous listed factors differs widely whether we are in Mumbai, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Building trust with a Chinese colleague requires a different skill-set to building trust with a colleague from Hamburg. Giving feedback to a Brazilian requires very different competencies to giving feedback to a Swiss colleague. Only once we understand what the different cultural values of our colleagues are can be begin to value them and only then can we begin to contemplate how to build trust with them or how to deal with conflict in the team.

Let’s look at an example; we’ll take our two colleagues above, the software engineer and the marketing manager. What cultural values could these two team members have that might be causing them not to see eye to eye?

Destiny and Time

Let’s start with their relationship to destiny and time. We’ll insert the competency of giving feedback, just to give it some depth. These are components that every ‘high-performing’ team member in any project-based team is expected to deal with daily. Generally speaking a German-speaking Swiss usually feels that she or he is the master of her/his own destiny. They will wake up in the morning and plan out their day hour by hour (well actually, let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with the Swiss, you know it’s closer to nano-minute by nano-minute planning), and ensure that they do everything possible within that day to reach the objectives they have set themselves. That means they won’t have any qualms about telling you that they can only speak to you on the phone for 11 more minutes because in 12 minutes they need to make another phone call. This same person is also not reluctant to give her boss some feedback at her upcoming performance evaluation telling him that his delegation skills are not great and that’s why she’s had a difficult year. Speaking directly and telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, is what a German speaking Swiss generally feels is the best policy. Planning has always been an important attribute in Switzerland. A country of very little natural resources with only about ten percent of its land being arable due to all its lakes, mountains and rivers and where human capital is its prime resource, needs to plan to be able to feed its young. ‘Let’s make sure we harvest all the fruit by mid-October so that we can preserve it for the winter and continue to feed our children.’ That is what a resident of Zug would call a healthy relationship to time.

Now let’s look at our Brazilian software engineer, who generally believes that fate will ensure whether or not the ship-freighted container of goods you expect to be delivered on Thursday afternoon actually arrives then or not. Brazil is such a plentiful nation where twelve months a year you can go out and harvest fruit or find scurrying animals in the forest who can provide food. The forest doesn’t freeze over so there isn’t that much need to plan, life will work itself out. Plus let’s not forget the very unstable economy that the Brazilians have had to deal with this last century. In the 1990s they had inflation percentages of 3 to 4 digits. ‘Whatever I have in my pockets today won’t be worth anything tomorrow, so why save it, how can I possibly plan for tomorrow? I live for today and God willing, things will go well.’ A couple of years ago around a dinner table following a tedious and arduous seminar, a Brazilian colleague of mine remarked with a big smile on her face, ‘That went well, thanks be to God.’ The non-Brazilian colleague sitting with us told her quite abruptly, ‘It had nothing to do with God, we planned well.’ That did not go down very well.

‘Leave it to Batman’

Filipinos tend to use the term ‘Bahala Na’‘What will be will be’, or more traditionally, ‘Leave it to God’. Recently a Filipino in one of my workshops told me that young Filipinos today have started to give the credit to Batman, ‘Bahala na si Batman’ (leave it up to Batman). ‘Sure, Mum, I’ll be home by midnight…, if Batman wills it’.

And when it comes to giving negative feedback, well, let’s say that the Brazilians are generally far more indirect than the German-speaking Swiss at expressing negative opinions. Brazilians tend to want to save face, theirs and the people they are speaking to. Speaking indirectly keeps the harmony, the good relationship and ensures nobody is offended. That doesn’t mean they don’t give feedback, but it means you need to learn to understand it when they give it. I recollect a number of times while working in Brazil, where I had asked my team members to read over some documents to let me know if any errors had been made. Over a two-year span and many long documents, my Brazilian colleagues had not noted a single word to change. My French colleagues having read the same documents later on made a million amendments… What I hadn’t understood was the Brazilian way of giving feedback.

So what happens when a Swiss person is working on a project team with a Brazilian or a Filipino? How can they give feedback that will not be taken as face-losing criticism? How do they deal with conflict and build trust and accountability?

A Culturally Diverse High Performing Teamneeds to understand what the cultural values of its team members are and only then can each member start to see each situation through the perspective of the other team members. And only then can the team envisage creating its own ‘third culture’ or team charter to which it will function.

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“Mateship and Mutiny”… Three steps to building trust amongst cultures

Slide1 copyAn Italian lawyer travelling back home to Rome after a business trip in Japan, (let’s call her Elisabetta), thinks about the meetings she just held in Tokyo. Her gut feeling is that she wasn’t very successful but she can’t really place her finger on what went wrong. Why did she have the feeling that her Japanese business associates didn’t really consider her to be the most competent of lawyers?

Trainers will often tell you that when you work with somebody who has a different cultural background to yours you need to adapt. OK, great. That doesn’t sound too hard. I mean, how hard is it to learn how to use chopsticks in Japan, or to not use your left hand at the table in Qatar? We usually don’t mind adapting when the situation calls for changing a physical habit but if the adaptation calls for a change in behaviour that contradicts our deep down values and that is contrary to the way we were educated, contrary to what we believe to be the ‘right’ way of behaving, then it becomes almost agonising and sometimes comical.

Nobody had told Elisabetta that she needed to control her emotions during her business meetings in Japan. However, even if somebody had informed her, would she have felt comfortable behaving so unnaturally? Italians tend to wear their heart on their sleeves. If they’re happy they’ll smile and laugh with joy, if they’re angry they’ll grimace with frustration, if they’re confused their forehead will wrinkle in a puzzled frown, irrespective of whether they are in a business meeting or having lunch with the family. The Japanese say, “Only a dead fish has an open mouth,” and a true professional controls his/her feelings in a business meeting. Any loss of control is deemed unprofessional. So Elisabetta’s gut feeling was probably spot on. The meeting probably didn’t go down so well.

Being able to build trust with your clients, colleagues or service providers of different cultural backgrounds requires “code-switching” or adapting your communication techniques and ways of behaving.

Milton Bennet says that intercultural sensitivity is not natural and that ‘Adaptation means we need to consciously shift our perspective and intentionally alter our behaviour[1]. Therefore in order to become interculturally competent we need to deliberately work at certain skills that are not innate such as giving direct negative feedback to one of our very direct German subordinates even though we are the type of person who usually speaks very indirectly. It’s the kind of thought that gives you a stomach-ache just imagining the scene. The evening before an evaluation meeting, you stand in front of the mirror at home practising all the negative things you need to say and then you get to the meeting the next morning and pofff… it just doesn’t come out as you wanted. You couldn’t help but camouflage the negative points with niceties and flattery even though you really needed to tell the person in front of you that her delegation techniques are not working. So she walks away from the meeting thinking she’s had an extremely good year and that her management skills are great. So much for directness.

Step 1: Know yourself

The first step to becoming interculturally competent is not to know how the other culture functions, but rather to know yourself. You need to take a good look at yourself and ask yourself, “What are my preferred ways of communicating, what are my most common ways of behaving in meetings and in situations of conflict and how do I problem solve?”

What’s the use of a trainer telling you that you need to adapt if you don’t know what to adapt from?

Let’s take a concrete example. You’re the head of your department and you were brought up in an egalitarian society. During a meeting you would always consider asking the opinion of your expert subordinates before making an important decision because you know that their advice is likely to be vital. Now, go and sit in a meeting with colleagues who were brought up in a culture that does not veneer a subordinate’s opinion and you’ll likely come out of that meeting pulling your hair out, wondering, “Why are they all just agreeing with me, why didn’t anybody question the upcoming deadlines?” If you are used to debating in meetings and receiving assorted input, this kind of behaviour will frustrate you and worse you’ll likely start labelling your colleagues as incompetent, unreliable and just plain lazy.

Step 2: Learn about the values of the ‘other’ culture (or those you mostly do business with).

Working with people of other cultural backgrounds involves developing competences that we do not necessarily have naturally, such as learning to ‘read the air’ in Japan. If you’re classified as Kuuki Yomenai in Japan, it probably means that you cannot ‘read the air’, or you cannot decipher social situations, such as not understanding body language. The Japanese are usually non-conflictual and your Japanese service provider would not embarrass you or make you lose face by replying to a last minute outrageous request of yours with an outright ‘No’. He will likely say, “It would be very difficult.” Reading his body language you will hopefully understand that he is actually saying, ‘Are you insane, your request is completely out of the question!’ If you had ’read the air’ then you would quickly move on and find a new service provider. If you aren’t capable of reading the air and you’re an eternal optimist, then you’re probably still sitting around waiting for the difficult situation in Tokyo to be made possible.

Step 3: Code switching – adapting your style

So, if step 1 is knowing how you behave, for example, ‘as an egalitarian with indirect speech,’ and step 2 is understanding how the person in front of you behaves, then step 3 is to ‘code switch’ or adapt your behaviour and communication techniques to be more comprehensible to the person in opposite you.

If we consider our style of communicating and behaving as a code that is common amongst people who have a similar background to ours then it is natural that we don’t have to explain our behaviour to them, they will subconsciously understand without having to try and decipher it. For example, a Swiss manager in a meeting with Swiss subordinates will naturally ask for the consensus of his whole team before making a decision. This allows the Swiss team to feel they have participated in the decision-making process (all related to the deep down value of direct democracy in Switzerland). Any behaviour that the manager uses which differs to that would likely make the subordinates feel as though the manager is hiding something and that he is not quite trustworthy. If he doesn’t adapt he may lose the respect of his Swiss subordinates which in the long run could lead to rebellion.

So before you order that, ‘Doing Business in Australia’ handbook and learn how to talk about Aussie Rules football while sipping at a caffé latte at the Monday morning meetings, take a look in the mirror and inspect yourself closely at your next meetings.

[1] Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”, Intercultural Press, 1993. 21-71.

 

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Effective Multicultural Teams

Ever wondered why you get that bitter-sweet taste in your mouth at the completion of a successful mega project that went well?

You worked hard, iArabic Man Standing With Businesspeoplen fact the whole team worked hard and reached its objectives, but you don’t think any of the team members really want to work together again and certainly not with you as their leader.

I recently spoke to a German who had just relocated to Zug, Switzerland from northern Germany. His intention had been to have a one-day workshop to learn more about Swiss communication techniques and working methods. During our pre-workshop phone conversation, we quickly realized that as often occurs to expats moving to Zug, he was not really going to be working with many Swiss people at all; his boss would be a woman from the USA, his assistant a young Malaysian and the rest of the team would be made up of a Greek, an Italian, a Norwegian and an Indian.

Well, so much for learning about Swiss communication techniques, I guess we could throw that idea out the window.

Zug’s population has close to doubled over the last 40 years. Today it has a population of around 110,000 made up of around 120 nationalities.[1] Zug has become such an international hub that more and more HR departments are requesting training for their employees that is no longer specific to working just in Switzerland, but rather how to make their multicultural teams more effective.

So what’s all the fuss about you might say. Why do multicultural teams need any particular training at all, surely the people who are selected to work abroad or to manage an international team are there because they are interculturally competent, right? Not always.

 

What does it take to make a multicultural team highly effective?

In their book, Intercultural Readiness, Ursula Brinkmann and Oscar van Weerdenburg[2], state that compared to a monocultural team, a multicultural team can be either highly effective or highly ineffective. Although most of us imagine that multicultural teams outperform monocultural teams consistently because we assume they have more creative ideas and different perspectives to add to the table, these teams often have quite a few hindrances that don’t consistently get in the way of monocultural teams. Although these teams do sometimes reach their task-related objective, they usually do not wish to work together a second time round[3]. So the benefits of their success is lived short term.

If we agree that a strong team needs good communication, trust and an understanding of how to resolve conflict, then we see how multicultural teams may underperform.

Leading directors pull together these project-based teams from all parts of the globe eager to bring together multiple creative ideas. However what they fail to question is how the group of such diverse cultures will actually collaborate, communicate and reach personal objectives, three themes that are rarely discussed openly before the project kicks off. These ‘dream-teams’ are usually shaped by people who have differences in age, gender, national culture, religion and professional background and each of these individuals has varying needs in terms of personal satisfaction and development.

Let’s look at the question of communication. Individuals of diverse cultures would generally have varying methods of communication. For example, one would ask herself, “Is it appropriate to speak up in a team meeting if I disagree with my boss even though I am the expert in the matter or shall I keep quiet (because of my respect for hierarchy)?” “Will I speak up if a deadline cannot be met, or do I not want to take ownership and responsibility for that?” “As a manager should I give feedback publicly to each individual including somebody who may be older than I am?” “Should I use brainstorming techniques for finding ideas or will that place some individuals ill at ease because in their culture it is not the accepted thing?”

When we work in monocultural teams we take our communication methods almost for granted expecting all colleagues to be comfortable communicating in a similar fashion. For example, a person who is brought up in a culture that likes brainstorming sessions, in an environment where people speak their mind and throw out ideas at such sessions, (irrespective of whether they are an Associate Director or an Assistant) would tend to lead a group believing these kind of sessions are the best way forward. Does that person take into consideration the team member who may have joined from perhaps a Japanese background and environment where often communication is only vertical (usually only downward and seldom would somebody speak their mind in such an environment)? The manager of a truly multicultural team would rarely get much input from each member in such a brainstorming session and would therefore need to devise another method of communication for this team in order to make the fortnightly meetings effective. He/she would need to create a method of communication that is comfortable and appropriate for all concerned – not my way, not your way; our way – cultural collaboration.

Let’s look at trust; How do we create trust in monocultural teams? I guess Monday morning in the office is the typical one that most of us can relate to. Discussing sports results at the coffee machine or discussing the latest film that we went to see on Saturday evening or even our child’s failed math test. As we get to know our colleagues we learn to confide in them and accept their ideas as worthwhile. Multicultural teams often do not get the opportunity to get to know their colleagues very well. Sometimes because they are based on different continents and only communicate virtually and then usually in written format where personal thoughts and feelings are usually left out or difficult to interpret. Sometimes it is just that we do not always take the necessary steps to get to know somebody who seems so different to us; what would a female generation X HR manager from Zurich have in common with a generation Y IT expert from Mumbai? Lack of trust and cohesion is often a cause for multicultural teams not wanting to work together on a second project[4].

So if these are just a couple of examples of what may make a multicultural team ineffective, how do we actually make such a team effective so that we can really get the most out of these culturally diverse teams and at the same time give each individual the chance to develop and want to work with her or his colleagues again?

The strength of highly effective multicultural teams is that they create a third culture, one that each member can adhere to as the culture of that specific project team. A culture where items such as how to deal with conflict are discussed or, “I as the manager of this team will not be offended if the team members question my ideas in a team meeting”.

Multicultural teams are effective when all team members are interculturally competent, i.e. they are culturally aware of differences and they know how to switch communication and work techniques to build trust across the different cultures within their team.

So at your kick-off meeting for that dream-team being created in Zug to work on a project in Tokyo, consider the theme of reaching cultural collaboration – create a third culture.

References

[1] www.zg.ch/portraet/leute (15 August 2015)

[2, 3 and 4] U. Brinkmann and O. Van Weerdenburg (2014), ‘Intercultural Readiness, four competences for working across cultures’, chapter 6, pp. 135-175