Managing multicultural teams, doing business internationally or working abroad can be daunting challenges. The relationship to time and authority as well as the decision-making process differ from one country to another, and form as many risks of coming into disagreement with your collaborators.
Here are eight keys to working better with people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
1. Identify the communication style
Each language reflects the communication style of the culture expressed in it. Thus, Japanese or New Delhi Hindi are two languages with a strong contextual dimension, in which a fairly large proportion of words can be interpreted differently, depending on the circumstances in which they are used.
What works for you may not work with interlocutors from different cultures. An interesting quirk is that in highly contextualizing cultures, the more educated and cultured one is the better able one is to speak and listen with sensitivity to the implicit meaning and different meanings of messages. Conversely, in cultures with low contextualization, the most educated and cultured professionals are those who communicate clearly and explicitly.
2. Be polite
The high-level international manager is one who knows how to adapt, make changes in his behavior and show humility, test the waters before speaking, assume that the other is of good will and invest the time and energy needed to build quality relationships. With a bit of luck and skill, it is possible to be perceived as polite in Amsterdam as well as in Jakarta, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Paris or Two Harbors.
3. Convince audiences with divergent codes
Resist the temptation to refuse to answer design questions, or risk sacrificing the interest and respect of those of your listeners who prioritize applications. Instead, take the time to properly answer their questions and provide some concrete examples to awaken the declining attention of the rest of the public.
4. Affirm leadership
In today’s global business environment, it is impossible to simply lead in an egalitarian or hierarchical fashion. You have to combine the two and develop the ability to manage across the spectrum of cultures, which often means going back to square one: observing the reasons for the success of local leaders, frequently explaining their style of management, even learning to laugh at oneself when the circumstances invite it. And fundamentally, that invites to vary the styles of management in order to motivate and to mobilize heterogeneous groups where each one conforms to the methods which are current at his place.
5. Discuss the mode of decision
You will avoid problems if you organize a dialogue on how to make decisions as soon as possible, and if you get everyone to agree on the process. Will decisions be put to a vote or taken by the boss after team discussion? Will unanimity be necessary? Should a deadline be set? What leeway will there be after the deadline to change the decision? Later, when important decisions are in play, go back over the process to ensure that it is understood and accepted by all.
6. Cultivate a friendly relational approach
As a general rule, it is always worth investing time in cultivating a relational approach, regardless of the background of the people you are working with. This remains true even when the two interlocutors come from work cultures as different as that of the United States and that of Germany. Once a friendly relationship has been established, it will be much easier for you to make amends for any cultural missteps.
7. Overcome disagreements
When working in a more confrontational culture than your own, it can be very risky to try to imitate the style of your interlocutors. Remember that what is seen as aggressive in your culture may not be so in another. Don’t feel insulted, if you can. Don’t try to copy a clashing style that doesn’t come naturally to you.
8. Reconcile relationships with time
When we start by having a frank discussion about how we are going to manage time, we prevent the annoyance that could appear over time. Having drawn the common framework, the group can then act according to its team culture instead of letting its members act according to the most natural method in their country. Once the style of team has been created, whoever leads it will still need to support the terms of the agreement and schedule a time every six months to review the agreement and possibly update the terms.
Erin Meyer is an American essayist and professor of intercultural management at INSEAD in Fontainebleau. In 2021, she was selected as one of the Thinkers50, the world’s most influential business thinkers. His latest essay is entitled “The Rule? No Rules. Netflix and the culture of reinvention” (Buchet-Chastel, 2021). These eight tips are taken from his book “The map of cultural differences – 8 keys to working internationally”, published by Diateino, 300 pages, 22 euros.